Sunday, May 20, 2018

Surprise Me

Title:  Surprise Me
Author:  Sophie Kinsella
Publication Information:  The Dial Press. 2018. 432 pages.

ISBN:  0399592881 / 978-0399592881

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

Opening Sentence:  "I have this secret little vocabulary for my husband."

Favorite Quote:  "I think a relationship is like two stories ... Like ... two open books, pressing together, and all the words mingle into one big, epic story. But if they stop mingling ... Then they turn into two stories again. And that's when it's over ... The books shut. The End."

Sylvie and Dan have been married for ten years. Life and marriage has settled into a routine. They are happy together ... for the most part. They know each other so well ... for the most part. They have a life together that works ... for the most part. "How many divorces are caused by the word nothing? I think this would be a very interesting statistic." Nothing is wrong, but is that good enough?

Sylvie and Dan don't pose this question much until an off the cuff remark by a doctor about life spans. It sets them wondering about the same old thing over and over again for how long? So, they set out to reignite the spark and to find a way to break the routine and to, as the title suggests, surprise each other.

So begins this book with a fun premise about a question many have been fortunate enough to consider. I say "fortunate" because the question presupposes a healthy, stable relationship in which life brings ups and downs but in no which no catastrophes (a death, an illness, a family crisis) emerge to make the daily routine something to covet. Sometimes, the reminders to be grateful are gentle ones, and sometimes, the routine is jarred and shaken to its core. This book has a bit of both.


Sylvie and Dan's first attempts at surprises are funny. Let's just say not all surprises turn out to be quite what the person intend. Also amusing are Sylvie's descriptions of her work with a nonprofit; I do wish that aspect of the story was more developed. As it is, it seems more there to fill space, interesting but tangential to the main story.

However, then the book takes a serious turn. Surprises turn into secrets, unpleasant secrets. The humor in the situation is lost in the serious concerns. The secrets come from a place of love but raise questions about the trust and the equality in a relationship between two adults. What secrets do you keep to protect the one you love? What trust do you place in your loved one and their ability to handle a secret? At what point does protecting someone go too far and become a commentary on their ability to handle the truth?  The book depicts Sylvie's perspective; I am left wondering what Dan thinks about this whole escapade. His perspective would add an interesting element particularly to the  more serious side of the book.

To some extent, this book is like two different stories - the first an amusing lighthearted one and the other tackling the more serious questions of parents, children, spouses, relationships, and even mental  health. The two didn't quite flow together for me. I am a little disappointed because I wanted the lighter, amusing story about two people rediscovering what brings them together in the first place.  The caring is there through the end of the book, but the humor and "feel good" portion of the story is lost along the way.


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

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Freshwater

Title:  Freshwater
Author:  Akwaeke Emezi
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2017. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0802127355 / 978-0802127358

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

Opening Sentence:  "I have lived many lives inside this body."

Favorite Quote:  "Understand this if you understand nothing:  it is a powerful thing to be seen"

Freshwater is "dedicated to those of us with one foot on the other side." Is that you? Is that me? Is that all of us? Is that any of us at all? What also is the other side? The other side of what? This book poses questions before it even begins.

The question simply grow in this surreal debut novel. This story is of one women but three characters. Ada is the young woman of Nigerian heritage. Asụghara and Saint Vincent are two distinct, unique selves that also occupy Ada's body. Each one of the three characters within this one young woman by turn narrate this story of being born, growing up, of growing into yourself, and of mental health. Within this personal story also weaves a cultural one with Ada's birth and childhood in Nigeria to her education and further life in the United States.

As with most books that introduce me to a new history or a new culture, I research this to see if it is based in Nigerian mythology. I research mythology for the ideas in the book of multiple selves and of spirits competing to control a physical body are mythological in presentation.

The first piece of information I encounter in my research is on the author's website. This book is Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel and considered autobiographical. Autobiographical. That puts this entire reading experience into a new light. This surreal story is someone's reality captured in fiction. This calls for further research.

Ms. Emezi identifies as black, gender non-binary, and Nigerian. In another article, Ms. Emezi describes the surgeries she has had to align her physical body with her non-gender specific identification. Throughout, she identifies the idea of being a ogbanje. In Igbo tradition, ogbanje is a spirit born into a child with the objective of bringing grief to the family. The child dies; the ogbanje returns as another child. And again and again, the spirit comes and goes. Families attempt to stop this cycle in varying ways ranging from preventing pregnancy to mutilating a child's corpse prior to burial. So, this autobiographical fiction story has its roots in life and in belief.

This unusual reality brings me to the book itself as a reading experience. This story is challenging to follow because it is nonlinear. The "characters" all embody what happens to one individual. So, the plot such as it is centers on one person, but the story comes from three very different emotional and mental perspectives. It makes it difficult to follow the chronology of Ada's life.

To make the challenge greater, the plot follows a rather graphic story line. Self mutilation, rape, and sexual encounters are a big part of this story. At times, the book seems rather focused on sexual exploration. That focus takes over and makes the book a difficult one for me for get through.

In between, though, the book offers glimpses of the person beneath all these layers. "... I inhabit a space between depression and happiness, a sweet spot, a brilliant spot. I .... wondered if it was true. If it was, could that spot be more real than either end of that spectrum? It would be a point of perfect balance, I thought." I wish her that balance.


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

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Two Girls Down

Title:  Two Girls Down
Author:  Louisa Luna
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385542496 / 978-0385542494

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

Opening Sentence:  "Jamie Brandt was not a bad mother."

Favorite Quote:  "You said every day we make a million little choices, and we should try to make the right ones as much as we can. And you said rarely in life do the big choices present themselves, so when they do, we have to take advantage of the opportunity. We have to do the right thing."

This mystery uses a formula that works in many books. Max Caplan is a down and out, divorced ex-cop. He is also honest and a great father to his intelligent teenage daughter. Alice Vega is an independent enigmatic private investigator with a behind the scenes IT expert who seems able to locate any and all information.

Their paths cross in a small Pennsylvania town. Two young girls disappear from a car in a parking lot while the mother runs quickly into the store. That image conjures up a parent's nightmare. The family calls in Alice Vega from California. Research leads Vega to Max. The police want neither of them involved, but a reluctant partnership forms nevertheless between Vega and Max. The clock ticks in rapidly in the race to find the missing girls before it's too late.

For what should be an action packed book, the story seems to move rather slowly. Much of the book reads like a police procedural. A lead is identified. It is followed. Interviews are done. A new lead is identified. And so on in a methodical, meticulous approach which works to solve a mystery but needs something more to fully engage. As is common with mysteries, the book has a lot of characters. In a small town, the stories of some overlap, and some just pick up and drop off. At times, it is difficult to follow who is being talked about as conversation shift throughout the book.

The main characters are a bit more developed. Throughout, the book drop hints and clues about the back stories for Max and Vega. However, the stories are never completely developed; they leave me wishing more details were given. It would perhaps make the characters more real and more memorable. A romance between the two is also hinted at, which I don't need to see in this book. Sometimes, it should be possible for two professionals to work together and create a successful duo without venturing into romance. It is not necessary. The fact of the undeveloped back stories, the hint of a romance, and the fact that the ending statement is a promise to return leaves me thinking that a series may be planned featuring the two characters.

Interestingly, while I enjoy reading about strong, female characters, Max is the one who engages me more in this book. Perhaps, his relationship with his daughter introduces a more emotional side which becomes more appealing than Vega's aloofness. The point of Vega's toughness seems pushed too hard in the book; it does not ring true. She is a little too perfectly imperfect. Max's daughter is perhaps my favorite character in the book. She is just a little too good and too perceptive to be true. However, she adds a bit of lightness to what is a dark and heavy story.

A formula for a book becomes that for the reason that it works for the most part. This structure leads to a quick, engaging read. However, it is the books that diverge from the formula that become memorable. This one really does not. It is momentarily engaging, but ultimately forgettable.


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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Next Year in Havana

Title:  Next Year in Havana
Author:  Chanel Cleeton
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399586687 / 978-0399586682

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

Opening Sentence:  "'How long will we be gone?' my sister Maria asks."

Favorite Quote:  "... but the older you get, the more you learn to appreciate the moments life gives you. Getting them certainly isn't a given, and I feel blessed to have carved out a life  here where I could be happy even if it wasn't quite the happiness I envisioned, if the things I dreamed of never quite came to pass."

The title of this book is a literal wish. "As exiles, that hope is embedded in the very essence of our soul, taught from birth - 'Next year in Havana' - It's the toast we never stop saying, because the dream of it never comes true."

The tumultuous history of Cuba continues. Over the last couple of months, the world press has focused on the elections that took place in Cuba on March 11. The articles focus not on election issues but rather on the fact that for the first time in decades, the leadership of the Cuba is not in the hands of someone with the name Castro.

This book picks up on this current history and also takes it back to the beginning of the Castro regime. As often in historical fiction, this book follows the story of two individuals in two time periods. In 1959 Havana is nineteen year old Eliza Perez. Her family is Havana aristocracy, but the coming revolution puts their home and their very lives at risk. In 2017 Miami is Marisol Ferrera, the granddaughter of Eliza Perez. The only thing she knows of Cuba is through the stories of her family who left in 1959 and never went home again. Their stories are anchored in the past. "To be in exile is to have the things you love most in the world - the air you breath, the earth you walk upon - taken from you. They exist on the other side of a wall - there and not - unaltered by time and circumstance, preserved in a perfect memory in a land of dreams."

Her grandmother's dying wish brings Marisol to Havana. Her experiences there and her discovery of her grandmother's past cast all the family stories in a different light. The book traverses both time periods, looking at Cuba in both times in history and the challenges and choices that face the Cuban people.

As with books of this structure, the story one time period and one character has a stronger pull. In this case, it is definitely the story of the 1950s, not just Eliza but the entire Perez family. "We are silk and lace, and beneath them we are steel." Their relationships, their impossible choices, and the heartache of having to leave all they know makes for a compelling story.

Marisol's story draws me in less so for a few reasons. First, both time periods involve a love story. Eliza's is intense and integral to her story. Marisol's appears more a distraction and unnecessary. Statement like I "can get through a day with him as long as I focus on the sites before us and not his tanned forearms" and "the scent of his soap - clean and strong - fills my nostrils" seem out of place in what is otherwise a serious and sad tale.

Second, because Marisol is new to the reality of Cuba, those in Havana become her guides, often sounding like a history class. Luis, who becomes Marisol's partner in this journey, is in fact a history professor. The history is necessary, but at the same time, again listening to history is an entirely different experience than watching that history come to life. It reminds me of a basic school writing lesson of "show, don't tell."

Finally, that experience of living in this history is not Marisol's. The story of the past belongs to her grandmother, and the story of the present belongs to Luis and the people she meets in Havana. She sees and tells the story, but in so many ways, it is not her story. However, Eliza's story is very much hers, and it keeps me reading until the final page.


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

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Great Alone

Title:  The Great Alone
Author:  Kristin Hannah
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0312577230 / 978-0312577230

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

Opening Sentence:  "That spring, rain fell in great sweeping gusts that rattled the rooftops."

Favorite Quote:  "... home was not just a cabin in a deep woods that overlooked a placid cove. Home was a state of mind, the peace that came from being who you were and living an honest life. There was no going halfway home. She couldn't build a new life on the creaky foundation of a lie. Not again. Not for home."

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.
The Shooting of Dan McGrew
by
Robert W. Service

This verse written about the vast beauty of Alaska is the source of the title for this book. The other inspiration for the setting comes from Kristin Hannah's own life. Part of her life was spent in Alaska after her parents left corporate life for a different adventure in Alaska.

The flip side of the incredible beauty of Alaska is a darker side. It is a harsh environment in which to live, and potential dangers - isolation, extreme weather, wilderness - are ever present in the environment. Within that, too, lie vibrant, close knit communities of individuals who call Alaska home. "Any life that could be imagined could be lived up here."

These layers carry over into the dark and often times sad story of this book. This is the story of POW and veteran Ernt Allbright suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and its devastating effects on him and his family. This is the story of an abusive marriage and Cora, a woman who time and again makes the choice to stay. Ultimately, it is the story of Leni, the child of that marriage.

Ernt Allbright on a quick decision moves his family to Alaska, with a wish to start over. "Alaska isn't about who  you were when you headed this way. It's about who you become." Unfortunately, he brings his demons with him. Cora and Leni survive as they always have. In Alaska, though, they find beauty, friendship, and a community. The community sees the reality of their lives and is ready to help should Cora and Leni choose to accept it.

I am not going to presume to judge why Cora stays. Based on nonfiction research, I know that staying in an abusive relationship for a long period of time happens with greater frequency than we would like to imagine possible. I also know that help can often times not be given unless the individual in the situation takes the first step. Actions have to be reported. Cases have to be filed. Conversations need to be started. In this story, Cora stays, and therefore, so does Leni.

The setup and the beginning of the book is intense in the characters, the setting, the situation, and the emotion. It has a sympathetic main character to care about. The events seem frighteningly real especially narrated from Leni's perspective. Surrounding it is the ever present vast beauty and danger of Alaska.

However, as the book proceeds, it is the same characters and the same theme, but the story loses its intensity and its believability. It seems like a race to incorporate every bad thing that can happen into this one story. With a small cast of characters, it is impossible to say where this book goes without a spoiler. Let's just say that it goes too far and undermines the "reality" of the powerful setup of the book. This is one that would receive a higher rating from me had it stopped at one major turning point in the story and left the reader with that dramatic conclusion.


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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Winter Station

Title:  The Winter Station
Author:  Jody Shields
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0316385344 / 978-0316385343

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

Opening Sentence:  "When Andreev said two bodies had been discovered outside the Kharbin train station, the Baron had an image of the dead men sprawled against snow, frozen in positions their bodies couldn't hold in life."

Favorite Quote:  "People can be reassured by a tone of voice. By a touch. A gesture. Even if the voice and gestures are false, the innocent person meets the liar halfway to complete the lie. It's a partnership."

The setting and the unusual-for-me theme are my reasons for reading this book. The setting is a Russian-ruled city of Kharbin, a major railway outpost in Northern China. The theme is an outbreak of the plague!

Researching the city, I learn that this story has an actual historical basis. The city of Harbin in the Heilongiang province was founded in the 1800s with the coming of the railways. It played a key role in the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s. Following the war, the city drew a diverse international population as a gateway into northeastern China. In 1910, the railway brought an outbreak of the pneumonic plague to the city. In a period of under a year, over 1,500 city residents - about five percent of the city population - died as a result. Ultimately, the plague claimed over 60,000 victims though Manchuria and Mongolia!

This story takes place in the fall of 1910 as the first victims are discovered. A lot of factors come into play as to what happens next. This region experiences bitterly cold winters; the cold and dark winter add an additional somber note to an already dark story. The city is depicted as a Russian-controlled, Chinese city. Cultural overlaps and differences add both additional complexities and conflicts as not everyone is respectful of the knowledge each culture has to lend to a solution. Different medical practises suggest different possibilities. Some are open to that; some are not. "We need all types of knowledge. Why not expand our circle of information?"

The history is fascinating. This book once again reaffirms the role historical fiction plays in introducing me to history I don't know. I find myself reading about the city and about the outbreak of the plague and about cultural interactions in the region. I end up spending more time with the history than the story itself.

The story as told in the book is less interesting - compelling in the intensity of the situation but less interesting to read. The narrator is the Baron, a Russian aristocrat and Medical Commissioner in the City. Through his eyes, the situation unfolds. Through his eyes, the reader also gets a glimpse of the culture and his respect for all the traditions he encounters. I love that respect.

That descriptive note though becomes the heart of the book. Nothing much happens in the plot itself. The book is slow-paced and sometimes seemingly repetitive. The plot essentially is the fear of contracting the plague and the desire to work to bring dignity to those who do suffer and to contain and stop the outbreak. This seems to repeat in a loop with different characters and in different social settings.

That is followed by what I feel is an abrupt and unexpected ending. I find myself turning the page to see if there is more, but there is not. The book has an ending, but no conclusion which leaves me unsatisfied as a reader. History tells us there was a conclusion; the book does not quite get there.


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

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Still Me

Title:  Still Me
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399562451 / 978-0399562457

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was the mustache that reminded me I was no longer in England:  a solid, gray millipede firmly obscuring the man's upper; a Village People mustache, a cowboy mustache, the miniature head of a broom that meant business."

Favorite Quote:  "You and I. We are both immigrants. We both know it is hard to find your place in this world. You want to make your life better, work hard in country that is not your own - you make new life, new friends, find new love. You get to become new person! But is never a simple thing, never without cost."

Still me is the third in what is now a series about Louisa Clark. Me Before You was the first sensation. Then came After You. Still Me brings Louisa Clark across the pond to New York. This is one series that really should be read in order. Each book is a continuation of the Louisa's story from the previous book. The arc of the story projects, and the characters evolve from one book to the next. Without the background of the first two books, this one will definitely be lacking.

For the sake of background, here goes a quick synopsis. In Me Before You, Louisa meets the love of her life who teaches her how to grasp life. Unfortunately, he dies. In After You, Louisa tries to deal with her grief and follow that lesson; a new life emerges. In this book, that same challenge to "live your life" brings Louisa to New York City, seeking new adventures. In particular, it brings her to a posh condo in the Lavery, which "was a scaled-down imitation of the famous Dakota building." (I love when I find random connections between the books I read!)

The first book deals with the serious issue of an individual's right to die. The second book deals with grief. This book shifts focus to a woman's journey of self-discovery and her ability to find her own voice. All three books weave the stories with compassion and humor.

This book proceeds in a more predictable fashion than the other two. As a reader, I see things - actions and decisions by other characters - coming that Louisa does not. She does seem rather innocent of the machinations going on around her. Naivete? Stupidity? Innocence? At this point, because I am engaged in Louisa's story, it doesn't really matter. I go with a sweet innocence because it makes for a sweet, feel good story.

Therein in lies the success of these books for me. They all work because the writing draws these characters and makes them come to life and makes them "real." I vest in their stories and laugh and cry along with them.

Mind you, this holds true even of the side characters and plot lines. This book wins me over because it tries to capture some of the diversity that is the heartbeat of New York City. It further captures me because one of the side stories is about book and the importance of libraries! "Books are what teach you about life. Books teach you empathy. But you can't buy books if you barely got enough to make rent. So that library is a vital resource! You shut a library, Louisa, you don't just shut down a building, you shut down hope." In the middle of Louisa's individual story, the book manages to successfully incorporate bigger societal statements.

Finally, without a spoiler, I will say I loved the ending. It is sweet and romantic, but more important, it is about a woman finding her strength and standing on her own. "The key was making sure that anyone you allowed to walk beside you didn't get to decide which you were, and pin you down a like a butterfly in a case. The key was to know that you could always somehow find a way to reinvent yourself again."

The only question that remains mirrors my thought at the end of the previous book. Is another chapter in the life of Louisa Clark yet to come?


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

Monday, April 30, 2018

All Things Bright and Strange

Title:  All Things Bright and Strange
Author:  James Markert
Publication Information:  Thomas Nelson. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0718090284 / 978-0718090289

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 boy shuffled his feet in the dark basement."

Favorite Quote:  "It's long past time now that we find a way to gather again. Our beliefs may be different. Some may not believe at all. But we have the same questions, the same needs, the same desire for good to prevail. And it's time to focus again on what brings us together instead of what could tear us apart."

Your reaction to this book depends on what it is you are looking for in it. Yes, that is true of all books, but this one poses expectations based on the label that brings you to this book.

Some have labeled this book as Christian fiction. It is, and it isn't. The references and the names used are Christian images. The allegory-like plot of good versus evil can be seen in that light. The messages of tolerance can be seen as Christian in spirit. However, the book also ventures into the world of demons, voices from the beyond, and a literal battle between good and evil. As with all things religious, it depends on your interpretation whether something is or is not representative of your beliefs.

Some have labeled this book as historical fiction. It is, and it isn't. The main character's background is in the history and trauma of World War I. The book is set in the 1920s in the aftermath of the War. the defining moment in his personal life centers on race relations. Beyond that, to me, history is not what this book is about.

Some have labeled this book as Southern fiction. It is, and it isn't. Set in the the fictional town of Bellhaven, South Carolina, Southern culture and mysticism definitely play a role in this book. The starting point of the book in racism can certainly find a history in the South. Yet, this book could work in many different setting and environments. The story is not about the setting.

Fortunately, for me, I know none of these labels before reading this book. I am drawn to the book based on the cover, the title, and the description. "The town folk believe they’ve found a little slice of heaven in a mysterious chapel in the woods. But they soon realize that evil can come in the most beautiful of forms."

The description leads to one label that does fit this book - supernatural. The small town of Bellhaven, South Carolina discovers a hidden chapel in the woods. For each visitor, the chapel seems to fulfill a longing for someone who has died. This same small town also gets a mysterious new resident who buys and restores a decrepit mansion that is said to be haunted. All is clearly not what it seems. What appears good may not be, and what seems to embody evil may not be.

Within this supernatural battle lies the very human story of Ellworth Newberry. He did not die in the War, but he did lose his life. His physical injury led to the demise of a promising baseball career. His emotional scars leave nightmares and fear. An act of violence in his home town leads to his wife's death. Ellsworth Newberry retreats from the world and from his life. Yet, his home town still looks to him as a leader especially in the strange new goings-on in their town. This calamity may perhaps be Ellsworth's saving grace.

Within this supernatural story and this personal emotional journey lies a very strong message of tolerance which I love. This small South Carolina town is quite diverse in its ethnic, racial, and religious demographics. Yes, it is constructed to make a point, but it works for it repeats a powerful message. More unites us than divides us, and standing together, good prevails.

So, I don't know about all the other labels for this book. I label it enjoyable, thought provoking fiction.


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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Girls in the Picture

Title:  The Girls in the Picture
Author:  Melanie Benjamin
Publication Information:  Delacorte Press. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1101886803 / 978-1101886809

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

Opening Sentence:  "Lately, the line between real life and movies has begun to blur."

Favorite Quote:  "We remembered these identical experiences differently - but that didn't make them any less truthful. Two people could look at something - like this photograph - and see two different stories."

Screenwriter Frances Marion and movie star Mary Pickford were the best of friends until they were not. By the end of her career, Frances Marian wrote over 300 scripts and produced over 130 movies, including those she worked on with Mary Pickford. She was also the first writer to win two Academy Awards. Mary Pickford starred in over 50 movies in her career. She was not a child star per se, but she embodied the role of the ingenue to the point that her career as an actress could not proceed beyond the public perception of her as that character. Both are universally recognized throughout the film industries as pioneers and masters of the art of film.

The book begins at the end of the story. Frances arrives at Mary's house. They are both aging. Mary refuses to see Frances. Then, the story goes back to the beginning of their friendship in their twenties and the long path that they travel together. Through this lens, the book captures the evolution of the Hollywood film industry from the silent flickers to the talkies. It looks at the male domination of that industry and the struggle of these young women to have their voices heard. It paints a picture of both their personal lives and their professional achievements. Most personally, the book is a story of friendship and sisterhood, with all the love, conflict and forgiveness that entails.

Given that this is a story of two strong women, I find it odd that only one of them is a narrator. Frances's side of the story is told as a first person narrative. Mary's side of the story is a third person narrator. It makes an odd construct because what I learn about Mary seems to come through Frances's eyes. Both characters are developed, but I do feel that the gap of Mary's voice. I want the other side of the story. It also creates an imbalance between the two characters. Perhaps, that is deliberate given how their story goes, but it is nevertheless challenging to read. It feels as if a piece is missing.

Given that this is a story of two strong women, I also find it odd how much of the book focuses on their relationships with the men in their lives. In a professional setting, these conversations almost a hundred years could be part of the #metoo conversations taking place today. (I guess we haven't come that far in 100 years). The points about harassment, male domination, and a glass ceiling are relevant to the struggles of these women. What I find less relevant are the simpering sections that basically read romance. Those I can do without.

Given that this is a story of two strong women, I find it most odd that the characters don't jump off the page and come to life in their strength. It begins with the cover art, where the image looks nothing like the two main characters. Neither does it portray the direct look of strength and confidence. Within the story, this may be due to the pacing. History tells us of the accomplishments of these women; the fictional story seems to drag and get bogged in the details at times.

Nevertheless, as historical fiction, the book accomplishes one thing I love about the genre. I read the fiction, and then take off on a treasure hunt for the facts of the history.


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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Red Clocks

Title:  Red Clocks
Author:  Leni Zumas
Publication Information:  Lee Bourdeaux Books. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0316434817 / 978-0316434812

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

Opening Sentence:  "Born in 1841 on a Faroese sheep farm, The polar explorer was raised on a farm near In the North Atlantic Sea, between Scotland and Iceland, on an island with more sheep than people, a shepherd's wife gave birth to a child who would grow up to study ice."

Favorite Quote:  "... her okayness with being by herself - ordinary, unheroic okayness - does not need to justify itself to her father. The feeling is hers. She can simply feel okay and not explain it, or apologize for it, or concoct arguments against the argument that she doesn't truly feel content and is deluding herself in self-protection."

The theme of this book is women and the right to choose. The place is a small fishing town in the state of Oregon in the United States. The time is current day. The premise is that a Personhood Amendment grants the rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. Many medical practises such as abortion and in-vitro fertilization are seen to infringe on that amendment and deemed illegal. The rights of adoption are available only to those deemed a two-parent, typical family.

In this setting, the lives of five women present five different perspectives on these laws. Interestingly, the one viewpoint not presented is of a woman who would believe in the validity of these tenets. In other words, this book is clear on which side of the question it stands on.

Ro, the biographer, is a single woman trying to have a baby on her own. Susan, the mother, is already a mother to two and is looking for life beyond that role. Mattie, the daughter, is a young woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. She is growing up with loving, adoptive parent, and her birth story adds another facet to this conversation. Gin, the mender, is a hermit-like herbalist who is accused of being a modern-day witch. The fifth woman of this story is the anomaly. Eivør Minervudottir, the explorer, is the fictional nineteenth century polar explorer whose biography Ro is researching.

I appreciate the premise of this book. The conversation is an important one. I also appreciate the surreal environment the book manages to create. The surreal feeling mirrors the real life drama today's political environment has become. However, I am not entirely sure what to make of this book. The picture it conjures up is at the same time modern and medieval. It is at the same time plucked from the political headlines and post-apocalyptic and dystopian. The characters are given universal roles, and yet specific individuals with actual names and with lives that intersect.

I can point to two primary reasons why I end up not being the right reader for this book. First is the abundance of graphic descriptions. I understand that this is a feminist book about abortion. However, the same point can be made without medical and physical descriptions and the erotic fantasies and memories.

Second, the narrative of the book gets in the way of the story. This book feels like it is trying too hard to be literary and thought provoking. The use universal titles for the characters doesn't work for they are also given names. The jumping of the story line from one perspective to another with periodic, seemingly random jumps make it challenging to keep engaged. The writing style with occasional phrases and single words thrown in for good measure jars the story. I am left focusing on how the book is written rather than the story being told.

My parting thought as I leave this book ... I hope this remains fiction, although at times reality seems disturbingly close to this fiction.


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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Winter

Title:  Winter
Author:  Ali Smith
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1101870753 / 978-1101870754

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

Opening Sentence:  "God was dead:  to begin with."

Favorite Quote:  "The internet. A cesspit of naivety and vitriol ... Well, the naivety and the vitriol were always there all along ... The internet's just made them both more visible."

I pick this book, having heard about Ali Smith and her work. She is an acclaimed, award-nominated, and award-winning author. This book is the second in a quartet, each featuring a season as a title. The first was Autumn which I have not read, although I believe the books stand alone. I am, however, intrigued that the quartet begins with autumn rather than spring in keeping with the symbolism of the seasons. Metaphorically, to me, the seasons symbolize the cycle and phases of life. I expect a somewhat philosophical read about family, about aging, about ... well life. I expect to leave the book with a lot to think about.

I suppose that does happen to some extent, unfortunately just not in a good way. I am left thinking about the book, but more puzzled than moved. The book description reads, "Ali Smith’s shapeshifting Winter casts a warm, wise, merry and uncompromising eye over a post-truth era in a story rooted in history and memory and with a taproot deep in the evergreens, art and love." What does that even mean?

That is about my summation of the book. I am not entirely sure what it's about. On its surface, the book is about a small, dysfunctional family gathering for Christmas. However, it begins with a rather disturbing image of the main character who sees a floating head. (For those who may remember, it made me think of the sun in the children's show The Teletubbies! Pretty sure that is not the intention!) Once seen, that image is pretty hard to unsee.

Unfortunately, for me, the book does not improve upon acquaintance. I never quite grasp the characters or the plot; therefore, I never quite care. The writing style is a stream of consciousness going from thought to thought to thought. The very short, choppy sentences add to that feel by creating a staccato beat to the book. The lack of punctuation for dialogue makes this challenge even greater. At times, the writing itself has a hypnotic, poetic feel to it. However, it is prose, and I am left looking for the story in this "post-truth" narrative.

Perhaps, that search is why I am not the reader for this book. In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" its international word of the year. The dictionary defines the word as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." Further explanation provides that the use of "post" does not imply a timeline of after but rather the idea of irrelevance. More often than not, the word is sadly used in the context of politics. This book puts it in the context of a family dynamic.

So, does a "post-truth" era story pulls more to emotions and beliefs rather than a plot for facts? I am not really sure, but that too can work to create a beautiful reading experience. As a reader, I respond to emotion and conviction in a book. Unfortunately, this book does not elicit that reaction either. So, for me, no real plot and no real emotion come through, and I struggle to the end, still searching for either.


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

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

Title:  The Sea Beast Takes a Lover
Author:  Michael Andreasen
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1101986611 / 978-1101986615

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 night before we load you into the crate and watch as the helicopter carries you off to the undisclosed location to drop you into the Atlantic Ocean, we eat dinner as a family."

Favorite Quote:  "Why is time travel important? The answer seems simple enough to the time travelers:  Time travel is important because it is the most objective way to study the unfolding of past events as they actually happened, to cut out history's middleman, with his incomplete record and his limited and hopelessly biased perspective, and go straight to the source - history in its rawest, purest form."

The sea beast in this book is an actual sea creature. The lover is a ship that the sea beast holds firm in its grasp. Choosing a book with such a title, I expect the unusual. This collection of stories certainly delivers. A society that ships off the elderly as if on an adventure to a new life. A girl without a head cared for by her younger sibling. An alien abduction. A saint who carries her completely severed but completely preserved hand on a plate. A boy who becomes a ticking time bomb. And more.

Aspects of some stories are truly disturbing. Reader beware. Different stories center on disturbing ideas - euthanasia of the elderly, sexual assault, infidelity, pornography, abuse, and others. This is by no stretch of the imagination a comfortable book to read. In fact, it is memorable for its discomfort and its completely surreal feel. Another warning - the stories don't really offer a judgment or closure or ending to some of these issues. The stories flow open-ended, more of a moment in time rather than a plot. The content of the stories in this collection ranges from the bizarre to the more bizarre.

Looking below the surface of the stories though, common themes do emerge. Each story seems to find its anchor in a character's need to be loved. Even the sea beast is looking for love. It destroys others in that path, but the need is for love. In these completely unrealistic, science-fiction like stories, the author manages to capture the very human emotion in both its intensity and occasionally its destructive path. It is this intensity that keeps me reading.

Like all collections, the individual stories can be individually reviewed. My reaction to each story depends on the balance between the bizarre and sometimes disturbing content and the very real and sometimes touching human emotions. In that respect, my favorite is the first one which is about the role of the elderly and this society's approach to dealing with the end of life.

My reaction also depends on the visual image the story conjures, and how disturbing that image is. The cover of the book is of course the sea beast; it is more a flight of imagination than a disturbing reality. The image I wish I could unsee is the girl without a head and the disturbing events of that story; that leaves images of the very real abuse and assault against a disabled person that could be and has been found in the news headlines.

All of this is a testament to the writing. The book contains no images except for the cover image. The writing, however, leaves a very visual impact. The fact that the books paints these pictures within the few pages of a short story is even more impressive for each story is completely different in its imagery. This is Michael Andreasen's first book. For this aspect of his writing, I may try whatever he writes next.

At the end, I am not entirely sure how I feel about this book. However, I will remember it for its weirdness.


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

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Ghost Notebooks

Title:  The Ghost Notebooks
Author:  Ben Dolnick
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1101871091 / 978-1101871096

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

Opening Sentence:  "Let me explain, first of all, that I was never one of those people who believed, even a little bit, in ghosts."

Favorite Quote:  "This is a thing that I'm sure is obvious to everyone else but is never-endingly astonishing to me:  that every change, every life, consists of nothing but a series of days."

I am still trying to make up my mind exactly what this book is about - a ghost story or a book about mental illness or a book about the profound impact of grief. The book is all of the above, but never quite comes to a single focal point. It presents the questions but not the answers.

Nick and Hannah are a young couple, struggling in New York City.  Their relationship is filled with disagreement. Hannah has lost her job, and Nick is a musician whose work is not tied to his location. An online job ad leads Hannah to a new job, and both of them to what they hope will be a new beginning.

The new job leads them to the Wright Historic Home in Hibernia, New York. Nick and Hannah become the live-in caretakers and curators of this museum. The museum preserves the legacy of writer and philosopher Edmund Wright and his family. More importantly, the house is said to be haunted for after the tragic death of the Wright's eldest son, Edmund Wright descended more and more into a study of the occult and the after life. The house has a history beyond what is documented in the preserved artifacts.

The adventure comes as a new beginning for Nick and Hannah; there is definitely a honeymoon period at the beginning. They rediscover each other, and find joy in the exploration of their new home. The biggest clue as to what's coming is the reaction of Hannah's parents to the move. They are distraught and warn Nick to watch over Hannah, who has struggled with mental illness. She is, in fact, on medication, to regulate her well being. Both Nick and Hannah ignore the warnings and move forward.

Hannah's struggles are summarized in the book. "Curiosities slide into idle fears slide into terrors without there being any clear points of demarcation." Nick's struggles too are captured in one statement. "There's an impulse, I've noticed, ... to comb through your memory for moments - the more recent the better - when that person last seemed perfectly normal. I just had dinner with him last week. I just got an email from  her the other day. Part awe, I think, and part protest:  but she was just here."

The story of grief and ghosts in this book competes with the story of mental illness. The two overlap and connect, of course; grief impacts our mental and physical well being. However, this book is a bit like the chicken and the egg conundrum.

I am not sure what to take away from this book. Would Edmund Wright have studied the afterlife and been visited by ghosts if his son's tragic death had not occurred? Did his profound grief influence what came next for the Wright family? Was Hannah susceptible to the stories of the house because she struggled with her own mental health? Was is ghosts or was it Hannah's fragile state of mind that led to the events of the book? How much did grief impact Nick's own state of mind? Did he believe in the ghosts or did he want to believe as a means of coping with grief?

The book does not provide the answers; as such, it is neither completely a ghost story or completely a book about mental health. However, it does presents the questions in a slow-paced, atmospheric manner to allow the reader plenty of the time to contemplate their own answers.


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

Friday, March 30, 2018

Blood Sisters

Title:  Blood Sisters
Author:  Jane Corry
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0525522182 / 978-0525522188

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

Opening Sentence:  "Careful"

Favorite Quote:  "... it's the cuts we hide inside that really do the damage. They rub and they niggle and they bruise and they bleed. And as the pain and anxiety grow in your head, they become far more dangerous than an visible open wound. Until eventually, you have to do something."

"Three little girls set off to school one sunny morning. Within an hour, one of them is dead." So begins the description of Blood Sisters. It makes me want to know more.

The year is 2001. Sisters Alison and Kitty are walking to school with Vanessa. Sisterly rivalry is embedded in Alison and Kitty's relationship. "Love is close to hate when it comes to sisters. You're as close as two humans can be. You came from the same womb. The same background. Even if you're poles apart, mentally. That's why it hurts so much when your sister is unkind. It's as though part of you is turning against yourself."

A car accident leaves Alison with minor physical injuries, Kitty with a traumatic brain injury, and Vanessa dead. The emotional scars, of course, run much deeper. From the beginning of the book, a realization exists that deeper, darker secrets lie behind what led up to that day and what truly happened the day of the accident.

Fast forward to present day. Alison is an art teacher, barely making ends meet and barely able to hang on to a semblance of a life. Kitty's brain injury has left her with extensive brain damage, which manifests itself in so many ways including violent tendencies and an inability to speak. She lives in an institution. Yet, now, the past seems to be finding its way to the present for both Alison and Kitty.

With this setup, the books gradually peels back the layers of this mystery. The book goes back and forth between 2001 and 2016. The story of the past builds to what actually happened the day of the accident and why it has ramifications for Alison and Kitty now. The story of the presents leads Alison to a job as an art teacher at a prison (yes, a prison). Kitty's life, such as it is, is disturbed by a face that triggers memories that Kitty cannot quite hold on to and cannot communicate. These are the "dots" the story eventually connects at its dramatic conclusion.

Of the two sisters, Kitty's character is by far the more interesting one. As children, Kitty is the stronger personality and most definitely the "mean girl". It seems that from the time of the accident, Alison seems to remain at that point in her life. As an adult, Alison is portrayed very much as weak. Her decisions and thoughts portray a victim. Kitty, nonverbal and institutionalized, shows more fight.

Mind you, the facts of the mystery itself are implausible and extreme. The premise itself is based on a sibling rivalry that goes so far beyond just rivalry to some cruel actions. Further, the sequence of events that lead to the eventual solution are beyond believable. No spoilers but let's just say the events are memorable in their implausibility.

The interesting thing is that if you can put that aside, the book is very readable. Because I could not have guessed where this book ends up, it does keep me turning the pages to see how this is all going to turn out. In that, the book successfully maintains its suspense which, I suppose, is the point.


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

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Where The Line Bleeds

Title:  Where The Line Bleeds
Author:  Jesmyn Ward
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2018 (reprint edition). 256 pages.
ISBN:  1501164333 / 978-1501164330

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 river was young and small."

Favorite Quote:  "Everyday, you choose."

Where the Line Bleeds is actually Jesmyn Ward's first book. Initially published in 2008, the book is being reissued this year. My guess is the reissue stems from the success of Jesmyn Ward's later works, which have won countless awards including the National Book Award. The author Jesmyn Ward is also a recipient of the 2017 MacArthur Fellowship (aka the MacArthur Genius Grant) for "exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans of the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential."

Where The Line Bleeds brings the reader once again to the world of these communities of the South. This book is the story of two brothers. Twins Joshua and Cristophe DeLisle live in the fictional small, rural community of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They have lost their father to drug addiction; although he is still alive and still in the area, he is not a father to the boys. Their mother left them to the care of others and went off to the city to seek a different life. She does visit and provide some financial support but on her terms and at her convenience. The boys' anchor is their grandmother, who has raised them with love and discipline and a sense of right and wrong.

The book opens as Joshua and Cristophe are about to graduate high school. College and a further education are beyond the realm of possibility. Leaving Bois Sauvage is not possible for the boys will not leave their grandmother. She has cared for them all their lives; it is now their responsibility to care for her. The only possibilities seem to be a handful of local jobs - the McDonald's, the Walmart, and the docks. Honest jobs for honest pay. The boys try, putting in applications everywhere they can think of.

A cousin throws out one more possibility - drugs and drug dealing. It is presented as a short-term solution to earn quick money, achieve some stability, and then get out when a job presents itself. As days pass, Joshua gets an opportunity for a job at the docks. It is manual labor and long days, but there is an honest paycheck at the end of it. This job is cause for celebration and pride. He did it. He has a job. Unfortunately, Cristophe is not given the same opportunity, and a divide appears between the brothers. Cristophe chooses a different path for he has to earn money to help support his grandmother and keep up with his brother.

As in her other books, Jesmyn Ward's writing submerges me completely into this small community, into the love, the poverty, and the desperation that fills the lives here. This book does not have the intensity of Men We Reaped and Sing Unburied Sing. It is a quieter story of the day to day realities of these communities.

The unspoken and unwritten heart of this book is the unfathomable reality that these young men see these limited paths as their only choices. That sense of hopelessness and that lack of possibility is their reality. Part of me goes through the entire book with a lack of understanding. Why not dream bigger? Why choose this path? Why not college? Why not? The realization hits hard that this is the reality that Jesmyn Ward's books portray. The resources and the potential so many of us take for granted in the United States still are not open and available to all of the nation's citizens. Once again, Jesmyn Ward's writing communicates a powerful message.


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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Everything Here is Beautiful

Title:  Everything Here is Beautiful
Author:  Mira T. Lee
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0735221960 / 978-0735221963

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:  "A summer day in New Jersey."

Favorite Quote:  "How trite, but true:  things change. Some all at once, some over a lifetime."

Everything Here is Beautiful a story of the bond between sisters; Miranda and Lucia are sisters who suffer many losses in their young lives. The book is also is the story of immigrants as the main characters are Chinese-Americans and other relationships in the book lead to other immigrant stories. Ultimately, though, this book is a story of mental illness and its far reaching effects on the individuals and those who love them. In that, this book is a heartbreaking story. Lucia lives with her illness and its ramifications, and the people who love her want to help and try to help but are often left watching helplessly.

Miranda and Lucia lose their mother at a young age. Miranda is the older one; Lucia is the unpredictable and impulsive one. Miranda feels responsible for her younger sister, but at times, is forced to walk away to preserve her own life. Love for her sister keeps drawing her back, trying to help.

Lucia's relationships lead to many who love her and want to care for her. One leads her to Manny, a young Latino man. He cares for Lucia and their baby daughter. Miranda and Lucia's Chinese heritage and Lucia's relationship with Manny bring the conversation surrounding immigration - both legal and illegal - into this book. The supporting characters carry this story line further.

Lucia's story is the story of mental illness. Her character and behavior changes diametrically due to her illness and due to her choices about medication. She manages loving relationships and pushes those same people away. She achieves some stability and then destroys it with actions driven by her illness. This is the heartbreak both for her and for those who love her. So, why then, does the book not resonate more emotionally with me? Several reasons.

The narration of the book moves between time periods and narrators, making the story at times difficult to follow and the emotional thread even harder to hold on to. I suppose the intent is to capture the impact of mental illness from different perspectives and to document the emotional toll on the caregivers. Unfortunately, the number of jumps in time and perspective seem just too many.

The bond between sisters is a key element of this book; yet, for most of the book, a great distance exists between the sisters. The book follows Lucia with Miranda appearing at the need arises. Perhaps, that is indicative of the relationship due to Lucia's illness. However, as a reader, the strong bond needs to be fully visible and established for the resulting distance to have impact.

The story of immigration becomes a focal point in the book, distracting from and competing with the depiction of Lucia's story. The book introduces the struggles of Miranda and Lucia's mother as a single parent and a new immigrant. With Manny and his friends, the book goes into the fears of those without legal immigrant status to the point of incidents with law enforcement and the resulting consequences. While these are important issues, they are not really part of the story of Lucia's illness.

For these reasons, a potentially powerful book about mental illness and its impacts conveys the idea but not its full emotional impact.


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