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.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Madness is Better Than Defeat

Title:  Madness is Better Than Defeat
Author:  Ned Beauman
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0385352999 / 978-0385352994

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 tribunal will not reconvene until I've had a chance to consider all the available evidence in my case."

Favorite Quote:  "It's not the fall that kills you, it's the landing. That was what people always said. And she's had no fall to speak of, but a hell of a lot of landing to make up for it."

The enjoyment of this book is based on buying into its outlandish premise. Imagine this:
  • The players:  An expedition looking to return with treasure. A movie crew. A CIA agent. Mayan gods.
  • The settings:  New York. Hollywood. A temple in the jungles of the Honduras. A tribunal back in the United States.
  • The time periods:  1930s. Twenty years later. Years later again.
The plot gets complicated, very complicated. In the 1930s, two expeditions leave the United States for the same destination - a preserved temple in the jungle of the Honduras. The objective of the New York expedition is to take the temple apart piece by piece and transport it back to New York. In New York, it will be reassembled for the pleasure of someone rich enough to sponsor this expedition. The objective of the Hollywood expedition is to shoot a movie at the temple in its current location.

Both teams arrive. Each claim the temple as their own. Both refuse to bargain or concede. In other words, both refuse to accept what they define as defeat. A stalemate occurs. The teams never leave. They set up opposing camps and stay. Why, you say? No idea. Madness, you say? Perhaps, that is the idea. As the title suggests, madness is deemed a better choice than defeat.

Almost twenty years later, a CIA agent arrives to investigate. Let's just say it does not end well. That lands us at the beginning of the book which is the CIA agent investigating his case for his own tribunal with an understanding that he will likely die before the investigation is even completed.

I don't completely buy in to the madness that prompts the two crews to stay. The teams encompass a vast array of characters; yet, no one at any time during the stalemate says enough. At the same time, somehow, that ceases to matter.

Reading this book becomes somewhat like playing with a kaleidoscope. The book is made up of a lot of tiny pieces. It moves between time periods, places, and narrators. It moves between a first person narration and an omniscient narrator. Within the main plot, the book incorporates a lot of subplots related to specific characters. At first, I try to keep the pieces distinct, and that is truly challenging with all the shifts. I almost give up, but finally decide that for me, keeping the details straight does not matter in this book. I step back to let go of the details and enjoy the bigger picture of this completely unbelievable, outlandish, but at the same time entertaining situation.

In a kaleidoscope, the individual granules are not important. It is the image formed when they fall together. Also, in a kaleidoscope, the tiniest of turns completely changes the entire picture. It can be viewed as chaotic or lovely, depending on your perspective. For me, there is something hypnotic about watching the twist and turns and the myriad of images that come through this book.

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

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Treacherous Curse

Title:  A Treacherous Curse (A Veronica Speedwell Mystery)
Author:  Deanna Raybourn
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0451476174 / 978-0451476173

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 assure you, I am perfectly capable of identifying a phallus when I see one,' Stoker informed me, clipping the words sharply."

Favorite Quote:  "Because there is no power on earth that could make me abandon our friendship. There is no deed you could confess so dark that it would make me forsake you. You said of us once that we were quicksilver and the rest of the world mud. We are alike, shaped by Nature in the same mold, and whatever that signifies, it means that to spurn each other would be to spit in the face of whatever diety has seen fit to bring us together. We are the same, and to leave you would be to leave myself."

This book continues on the series of mysteries featuring Veronica Speedwell. The story stands on its own, but previous relationships are alluded to and built upon in this book. Enough is explained for the book to stand on its own.

The setting remains the same.  London 1888 - a year following the previous book, A Perilous Undertaking. Victorian England. A time of royalty and empire. A time of rules and traditions, but also of those paving their own paths.

The main characters remain the same. Veronica Speedwell is quite a character and consistently presented through both books. She is a lepidopterist, a scientist who studies butterflies. She is engaged in a project to catalog the treasures of a certain nobleman, although her next expedition has been postponed due to the sponsor's health. She is also a detective; apparently, she did not set out to be, but she has become embroiled in mysteries she has successfully resolved. She is also connected to the royal family. This connection, not publicly acknowledged by the royal family, reveals the more unsure, vulnerable side of Veronica which rounds out her otherwise self-assured, sometimes smug, stance.

Her partner in crime (or crime fighting, I suppose) remains the Honorable Ravelstoke Templeton-Vane, aka Stoker. He is a historian and scientist. He continues to be the black sheep of his family. This book goes further into Stoker's story for the mystery involves someone from his past. While A Perilous Undertaking is very much Veronica's story; this one is much more so Stoker's.

Veronica and Stoker are colleagues and friends, but the underlying tension leading to more continues. They seem to have achieved both a professional and personal partnership. It is not an acknowledged romance, but the caring is evident and waiting to be acknowledged.

The mystery of this book is a disappearance, both of a man and an archaeological artifact. An archaeological expedition to Egypt has been beset by problems. The latest is that one member of the expedition has disappeared with a priceless artifact from the dig. He is last tracked back to England. The connection? This man is Stoker's former expedition partner and married to Stoker's ex-wife. Let's just say they did not part on the best of terms. 

In fact, because of this history, the potential exists that Stoker might be suspected of being the guilty party in these misdeeds. This makes the mystery personal for both Stoker and Veronica. Stoker must deal with his past, and Veronica must separate the fact from the fiction of this past. This also makes the mystery much more focused on the characters and the relationships than the events themselves. For this reason, I find myself actually more engaged in this book than in A Perilous Undertaking.

An easy and enjoyable read. A mystery. A budding romance. Strong, independent characters. These are the features running through both books in this series that I have read. I look forward to following them on Veronica and Stoker's next adventure, if only to see where the relationship goes.

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

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.