Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Elsey Come Home

Title:  Elsey Come Home
Author:  Susan Conley
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2019. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0525520988 / 978-0525520986

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

Opening Sentence:  "About a year ago my husband handed me a brochure for a retreat in a nearby mountain village."

Favorite Quote:  "I want to be the heroine of my story. And you, too, Elsey. You, too, be the heroine. Not the victim. Understand? Because the heroine is the one who owns the story."

Elsey was and maybe is again a painter. Something, I am not entirely sure what, brings her to Bejing, China. She meets Danish expatriate Lukas. The two marry and settle in China. They have two daughters, who are still young and in need of a lot of attention.

Elsey cannot deal. She stops painting. She is unable to care for the girls. She drinks. She drinks a lot, driven by unhappiness and descending into alcoholism. Her husband gives her a brochure for a mountain retreat in Shashan. His suggestion borders on an ultimatum. For their life to hold together, Elsey has to be get better. So, Elsey goes.

She starts a journey with strangers. Their struggles create a bond. Elsey's journey inwards also brings her to her past and her childhood. The issues she needs to face are not just of her married life and the challenge of balancing marriage, children, and a career. The issues have roots reaching far back into Elsey's life and the death of her sister Margaret.

Is she successful? In some ways, the book begins with the ending. The opening sentence of the book states that it is a year after Lukas gives her the brochure. The fact that it is a year later and the fact that Elsey references her husband in that same opening is an indication of part of the ending. The rest of the book is the further definition of what life a year later looks like and how Elsey gets there.

This book confuses me. It travels between time periods with little warning. The story is also told all from Elsey's perspective so a change in voice does not even mark a shift in time. I find myself getting lost and unable to really follow Elsey's journey. Oddly, for all her struggles, Elsey for me fails to develop as a sympathetic character. Perhaps, that too is a function of the jumping time frames for the continuity of emotion is lost for me.

The retreat Elsey goes to involves what you might expect - yoga, meditation, silences. It also involves the other participants and the organizers. It is through these people that Elsey begins to come to terms with her own emotions. All this in a week. As a reader, the issue once again is that the changing time lines and the view onto these individuals through Elsey's eyes keeps these characters from really developing or engaging. The characters sound interesting from the descriptions; they just seems forever at a distance as the story remains firmly Elsey's.

Perhaps the storytelling - both meandering through time but simultaneously singularly focused on Elsey - mimics the nature of addiction. For me, some further explanation and grounding is needed for me to walk away with that complete image. Too many characters. Too many time periods. Too many details. And yet, at the same time, not enough to pull me completely in emotionally. Sadly, I find myself unable to follow and unable to be the reader for this book.

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

Monday, January 28, 2019

All We Ever Wanted

Title:  All We Ever Wanted
Author:  Emily Giffin
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399178929 / 978-0399178924

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

Opening Sentence:  "It started out as a typical Saturday night."

Favorite Quote:  "I mean, Dad, some people in Belle Meade do suck. Some people are huge snobs, and look down on us. But a lot of them aren't like that at all. Some of them are just like us, only with more money ... and if money and appearances and stuff like that don't matter, then they shouldn't matter either way."

This is a book based on current headlines. White privilege. Racial discrimination. Economic Disparity. Immigration. The #metoo  movement.

Kirk and Nina are part of the Nashville elite. Their wealth comes from the sale of Kirk's company. However, Kirk is a product of the moneyed Southern society. Nina is not. Their only son Finch is a high schooler, growing up in a world of an elite private school and everything money can buy.

Tom is a single father to his daughter Lyla. He is carpenter and lives on the other side of the "tracks" - the river in this case. Lyla is biracial; her mother is Brazilian.

Finch and Lyla both attend Windsor Academy, a private K-12 school. Finch has been there since kindergarten and is a "golden boy" of the school. His parents have paid tuition and donated generously.  Lyla joined at the start of high school and is a scholarship student; her family would not be able to afford the school otherwise.

The crux of the plot is that an inappropriate, sexual picture of Lyla at a party with a clearly racist caption is sent to a group of Finch's friends. It spreads through social media, finding its way to Finch's parents, to Lyla's father, and to the school. From there, the book proceeds to highlights the issues - criminal and personal - from different perspectives.

Kirk's opinion reflects "boys will be boys" and "you can't ruin a good kid's life over one choice." His attempt is to use his money and influence to make it go away; that is the lesson he imparts to his son. Truth is a casualty of that opinion.

Nina's opinion is that "wrong is wrong." She questions herself as a mother for her son has done this. She also wants her son to learn the lesson now, while his behavior and his life can be put on a more centered track. Her questions trigger memories of her past and lead to bigger questions about her own life.

Tom is a father trying to navigate his daughter's teenage years. He is not wealthy and at times has a chip on his shoulder about his perception - warranted and unwarranted - of those with wealth.

Finch is a young man used to getting his way. He has been indulged in everything money can buy. He sees no reason why that should change.

Lyla is a young woman, struggling between the need to fit in and be liked and the necessity of calling attention to the crime committed against her.

Through these main characters and the surrounding society of minor characters, this book gives voice to an important conversation. Some of this book goes in the expected direction; characters and actions stay true to the stereotypes being drawn. However, what I appreciate the most is that the book does not end in a neat package. That is not how life works, and the ending adds more depth to the point being made by the entire story. It leaves me with a lot to think about.

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

Saturday, January 26, 2019

King Con

Title:  King Con:  The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age's Greatest Impostor
Author:  Paul Willetts
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0451495810 / 978-0451495815

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 waiting was almost over."

Favorite Quote:  "Behind his jaunty double-dealing lay a sorrowful recognition that no matter how hard he tried to be someone else, someone worthy of acclaim, he's always be that not good boy from Central Falls."

If I told you this book was fiction, you would totally believe my statement. The misadventures and audacity of Edgar Laplante sound far-fetched and unbelievable except that Edgar Laplante and his escapades were completely real. Dissect the title of this book, and you have the story.

Bizarre:  This word in the title is what makes this book so entertaining to read. Edgar Laplante went from a small time conman to the upper echelons of European aristocracy. His brush with even bigger history came with his relationship with the rising Mussolini regime in Italy. Oddly enough, this book would be "believable" as fiction because what Edgar Laplante managed to "accomplish" was so bizarre.

Adventures:  Reading "crimes" for "adventures" would be a correct interpretation. Edgar Laplante was a small-time performer and swindler who drifted from town to town, staying one step ahead of the law. His travels took him all over the western United States to Europe and back again. Since there was no instant internet news at that time, stories about his swindles reached his next destinations but late enough for him to stay ahead of the news.

Jazz Age:  The Jazz Age was a period of history from the late 1910s through the Roaring Twenties in the early 1930s. As jazz was born in the United States, the "jazz age" primarily refers to the United States history, music, and culture. The time period enabled Edgar Laplante's act in vaudeville and as a society charmer to flourish. His assumed persona brought a touch of glamour that people gravitated to; that is, until they discovered he was a fraud.

Greatest Impostor:  Edgar Laplante to Tom Longboat ultimately to Chief White Elk. A white man transformed himself into a Native American leader and fooled a lot of people for a long time. In fact, part of his act was to raise awareness and collect funds for Native American causes; the funds, of course, lined his pockets. It brought him travels, wealth, admiration, and even a love of sorts."Greatest" is an epithet added by the author; I leave it to you to read and determine if you agree.

I had never heard of Edgar Laplante before. Search the name now, and most of the hits point towards this book. According to his website, the author learned the beginnings of this story while browsing the online catalog of Britain’s National Archives. (Who knew that was even possible!)

Since all the players in this story are long deceased, the research conducted was through archival sources. Interestingly, because Edgar Laplante ran afoul of the law, bureaucratic police records provide a wealth of information for this book. The research that went into the book is evident from the detailed accounts presented. The writing itself though reads like fiction and tells a story. Creating that story is an accomplishment since the primary research is based on police records and journalistic accounts not filled with personal details. My key lesson from reading this book is that truth absolutely can be stranger than fiction.

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

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Before and Again

Title:  Before and Again
Author:  Barbara Delinsky
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1250119499 / 978-1250119490

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

Opening Sentence:  "Mackenzie Cooper had no idea where she was or, more critically, why she hadn't already arrived."

Favorite Quote:  "They say a mother's love is unconditional ... but which is more abiding - a mother's love or a child's need for it?"

Mackenzie Cooper's, aka Maggie Reid's, daughter died in a car accident. They said Mackenzie was responsible. A moment of distraction had life altering effects. Two people died. A law about distracted driving became synonymous with the name Mackenzie Cooper. A marriage ended. A free woman became regimented to the life of someone on parole. Mackenzie became Maggie. Maggie ran.

Maggie moved to a small town in Vermont. Maggie tried to live by a new precept. "The more I let the present unfold, the more the past would find its place." However, Mackenzie came along to where ever Maggie was. The memories and the guilt could not be altered. Changing everything somehow changed nothing.

Maggie has compartmentalized her life into the "before" and the "after." The "again" comes when circumstances and a friend force Maggie into the limelight again and force her to face her demons once again. "Tragedies happen. How we handle them is a test of character." This is the story of what Maggie does.

This book poses some powerful questions about one of the most devastating losses a person can experience. For Maggie, two questions define her life. How do you go on after the death of your child? How do you go on when you were responsible for that death? For Maggie's friend, the question is different. What would you or would you not do to protect a child? Maggie now is torn between protecting herself and being there for her friend. Which will she choose?

The consequences and emotions for both are heartbreaking to contemplate. Oddly though, for what should be a serious and thoughtful and emotional story, the book reads very lightly and very quickly. It would be a summer beach read except for the topic. This book also covers a lot of ground. It is the story that the description alludes to. It is also about a crime. It is also about small town life. It is also about another parent, another child, and another back story. Scattered throughout are descriptions of Maggie's work as a makeup artist with the appearance of making a philosophical point. Finally, the book is also a little bit of a romance. Ultimately, it all comes together almost too easily into too neat of a package. The ending is predictable from the beginning, and the book brings no real surprises or depth.

"Life was. A tapestry. Needlework had never been my medium, but the metaphor fit. Life was a bundle of loose threads, really just a flimsy canvas until a few, strong, basic cords were woven in." The statement describes life, but is also an apt metaphor for the book itself. For me, Maggie should be the "cord" that binds this story together. Unfortunately, the character just does not develop as a strong enough anchor to carry me through the entire story.

The descriptions of Barbara Delinsky's books always hold such promise. This one proved to be a quick read but did not live up to the promise of the emotional premise.

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

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Visible Empire

Title:  Visible Empire
Author:  Hannah Pittard
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0544748069 / 978-0544748064

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

Opening Sentence:  "In the first few hours, confusion."

Favorite Quote:  "I want to tell you that I understand how big the heart is, how capacious an organ. There's so much room inside. I see that now."

What began as a delightful month-long tour of European art for 106 individuals associated with the Atlanta Art Association ended in disaster. In June 1962, their Air France flight home to Atlanta crashed on take-off from Paris. Two flight attendants survived. The remaining crew and 122 passengers, including the 106 from Atlanta, perished.

Visible Empire picks up on this historical event and creates a fictionalized story of the impact of the crash on the city of Atlanta and its residents. This is not a history I knew. So, I did some research on the plane crash and surrounding events. This, in fact, is one of my favorite things about historical fiction; it often sends me reading the actual history. The fiction and stories are interesting, but I never make the mistake of taking it for the actual history.

In this book, however, the history - of the crash, of the Civil Rights Movement, of life in the South, and of the 1960s is not the center of this story but rather just a backdrop. The book narrates its story - or really what seems a collection of stories - through a varied set of characters. The chapters move back and forth through the different perspectives and essentially different narratives. The issue for me becomes that there are simply too many characters and, hence, too many different threads of this story. It becomes challenging not only to remember the characters and relationship but all the narrative related to each. The characters seem at times tangentially connected. All of this seems to lead to the fact that the characters seem to not develop through the story. Because of the breadth of the narrative, I seem to miss the depth.

Also, I seem to miss the story of the crash. That is the back drop, but then the story veers off into the individual narratives. A couple whose marriages may or may not survive infidelity. An expectant mother dealing with the realization that her parents may not have been who they seemed. A young woman who tells one lie which pulls her into thing she could not have imagined. A black sheep who inherits a fortune. A young man representing the issues of race and segregation. A mayor trying to deal with personal and professional ramifications of the crash. And more. Yes, the crash impacts all of them in different ways, but for most of them, it is not central to their stories.

I guess, at the heart of it, this book was not what I expected and not about what I expected. I might have enjoyed it more had the historical connection not been drawn. I expected more about the actual crash and those who perished. It wasn't there. I expected more incorporation of actual historical figures, but did not find that either. I expected more about the historical outcome, but that too is not really part of this story. This is a case of the history being much more interesting than the story that is built on it.

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

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Title:  The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Author:  Hiro Arikawa (author). Philip Gabriel (translator).
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0451491335 / 978-0451491336

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

Opening Sentence:  "I am a cat."

Favorite Quote:  "Repeated patterns of childhood behaviour have long-term consequences."

A thirty-some year old man Satoru sets off on a journey to find a home for his cat Nana. Nana was a stray until he was injured. Satoru cared for Nana as a stray and then even more when Nana decided to stay and be Satoru's cat. The journey is narrated from different perspectives including that of Nana the cat. Hence, the name is literal. Nana the cat chronicles their travels.

The journey is literal and figurative. Satoru travels to different people who are or were once a part of his life to see if one of them can provide a home for Nana. This literal journey leads to conversations that travel through Satoru's life, from childhood onward. Finally, in this journey lies the answer to the question of why a relatively young man would need to find a new home for  his beloved pet, who is also truly his only companion. Thinking about it, that question is not hard to answer. There are not many reasons why such a journey would happen. As such, the revelation when it come is not a surprise.

Each stop along Satoru and Nana's journey is a person who influenced and made Satoru the person he is. It begins with a childhood friend and brings up the traumas of that childhood. This episode includes the cat Satoru had as a child. The journey ends with Satoru's aunt.

The story is a sweet one about the connection between a man and his pet and about the unconditional devotion both show to the other. That love is what I will remember about his book. Beyond that, I find myself challenged to connect to the book. Satoru never quite becomes real to me. I see him through Nana's eyes, which see someone almost perfect. Again, that reinfoces the idea of unconditional love. That aside, I don't find myself appreciating Nana's voice as the narrator. By definition, it is an orchestrated voice and as such once again puts reality just a bit too far out of reach.

The sweetness of Satoru and Nana's connection is counterbalanced by a lot of sadness and loneliness in this book. The ventures into Satoru's past include some really sad episodes, including deaths, loss of friendship, and even abuse. "Some people really shouldn't become parents. There's no absolute guarantee when it comes to the love between a parent and their child." These episodes and the nature of Satoru's journey mean that a sadness permeates the entire book.

The disclaimer in a translated book, of course, is a question. Does the book lose something in translation? Unfortunately, that one, I cannot answer.

Perhaps, I should have started this review with another disclaimer that because of an allergy, I am not really a cat person. What drew me to the book was the lovely cover, a chance to read Japanese fiction, and the unusual narrative voice. I wanted to see where it goes. I don't think being a "cat person" is necessary to enjoying this book, but perhaps you may disagree. The idea of a connection between two living beings and the idea of unconditional love go far beyond the fact that Satoru is a man, and Nana is a cat. I will leave the rest, but take that memory from this book.

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A Shout in the Ruins

Title:  A Shout in the Ruins
Author:  Kevin Powers
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0316556475 / 978-0316556477

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

Opening Sentence:  "By 1870, not even four full years after the clerk of Chesterfield County, Virginia, officially recorded Emily Reid Levallois's, rumors of her survival and true whereabouts abounded."

Favorite Quote:  "Didn't anybody ever tell you that seems ain't is?"

This story, covering a century, is set in ruins - literally and figuratively. Told in alternating chapters in two time periods, the book is set in the South the aftermath of the Civil War and its continuing repercussions decades later. The connecting thread throughout is the Beauvais Plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia. The connection appears at times to be a relatively thin thread constructed to convey the varying perspectives all in one place.

I chose to read this book because of its setting in the time period immediately following the Civil War. I have read the history and stories of slavery. I have read about the Civil War. The theory of what happened at the end of the war is easily described. The North won. The South lost. Slaves were emancipated. The reality, however, is complicated; this is a period of history about which I have not read much. What happened after? How did the promise of freedom translate to reality? Did it? Has it yet?

The tale this book tells is a sordid and dark one, but it is a narrowly focused story. It is about the greed and cruelty of one man; it is about a desperate marriage; it is about one family and those who immediately surround it. As such, it becomes not as much about the historical context as the plot surrounding this one family.

The context is the larger one, and through the different characters, the book picks up on different perspectives on the time period. Anthony Levallios is the cruel and greedy opportunist. His wife and her father are the plantation owners fallen on hard times. Nurse and Rawls are the slaves seeking to carve out a life of their own. George is the one who decades later searches for answers to his family history.

The only thing binding the characters and the different story lines together is the plantation. As such, the overall image for me doesn't quiet come together. I see the pieces, but it does not coalesce into a composite image.

The unfortunate thing is that I get lost in this story. Many books successfully tell stories over two time periods. Although centered on this one plantation, this book just has a lot of characters, a lot of story threads, and a lot of movement back and forth. Some of the connections also are not clarified until well into the book. Overall, it becomes difficult to follow because the different threads are left off and picked up so many times. It also becomes challenging to determine what details might be crucial and what characters to remember because they may make an appearance later.

For me, part of the issue may be due in part to the extensive descriptions and the seemingly ornate language of the book. The language seems to add to the feeling of too much, especially in a relatively short book.

For these reasons, it feels like I never quite get out from the details to the bigger picture of the history.

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

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Lauras

Title:  The Lauras
Author:  Sara Taylor
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  045149685X / 978-0451496850

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

Opening Sentence:  "I could hear them arguing, the way they argued nearly every night now, their voices pitched low and rasping in that way that meant they thought they were being too quiet to wake me up."

Favorite Quote:  "It wasn't until I spent a day in the mountains, wandering for the sake of forward motion alone, that I realized that what I felt was a sort of anti-homesickness, a sick-of-home homesickness, that home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy."

After trying two books, I don't think I am the right reader for Sara Taylor's books. The plentiful premises of this book are all intriguing with potential to envelope the reader in a powerful, emotional story. As a coming of age story. As a story of a young woman and her mother. As a story of a road trip. As a story of a woman escaping an abusive relationship. As a story of individuals being defined by all they have encountered.

The story begins with a middle of the night departure. After one too many fights, Ma takes Alex and leaves her husband and her home. The destination is intended to be in California, far away from their Virginia home. However, the destination is not the critical part of this story. It is the journey itself.

The journey is both a physical one and a metaphorical one for both Ma and Alex. In many ways, their journeys parallel. Encounters and incidents in the present that influence Alex contain echoes of the stories that define Ma's past.

The narrator is young Alex so it is through her eyes that the reader sees Ma's journey. In many ways, this book is more Ma's story, but seen through Alex's eyes, that story remains at a distance. The theme of gender identification plays a key role in Alex's own journey. However, Alex is a thirteen year old, and as a reader, I don't feel like I really get to know her. Perhaps, that is the point being conveyed. Alex is determining who she is and taking the reader on that journey with her. Unfortunately, it becomes somewhat a Catch-22 situation. Without a feeling that I get to know her, it is challenging to want to follow Alex on her self-discovery.

There are two other reasons I find this book challenging. The first is that the structure is confusing. Ma is escaping an abusive situation. She is literally taking a trip down memory lane to tie up loose ends (a lot of them apparently). Alex is not completely aware of this; at times, she is just literally along for the ride. Yet, she is the narrator. Then, we have the fact that Alex is a teenager becoming more and more aware of herself and who she is. Her self-awareness grows with each stop on the trip and with each person she meets. It's a lot to follow.

The second and even greater reason that I am not the reader for this book is the sexual scenes in the book. In the first book I read by Sara Taylor, The Shore, the descriptions of violence overshadowed many other things in the book. In this one, it is the sexual scenes. It is just not for me. When the book is about and from the perspective of a thirteen to fifteen year old, it is even less for me. Because of the age of the main character, this book at times has a YA feel; however, the graphic sexual descriptions including those of rape firmly put it out of that character. Reader, beware.

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