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


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.