Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Beginning at the End

Title:  A Beginning at the End
Author:  Mike Chen
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0778309347 / 978-0778309345

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

Opening Sentence:  "People were too scared for music tonight."

Favorite Quote:  "See, relations are people with the same blood. But family, that's different. Family is about who gives you hope, who gets involved. And earns the right for forgiveness. Or at least starts down the path."

Mike Chen's novel Here and Now and Then was a family drama mixed with a science fiction story. A Beginning at the End picks up on the same themes. It is several family dramas in the midst of a post-apocalyptic world. The setting is San Francisco. The time is 2025.

A flu epidemic has wiped out half the world and left so many societal things we take for granted in shambles. Society is rebuilding, but, of course, differing opinions exist on how best to do so. The government has a "Big Brother" like feel.

Moira Gorman, formerly known as teenage pop star MoJo, used the chaos of the epidemic and a government quarantine to essentially run away from her life as a music star. More importantly, she ran away from her father, who used her as a business enterprise. She has reinvented herself but hides her history, not wanting to be found.

Rob Donelly is a single father to seven year old Sunny. He lost his wife in the quarantine. His life and his daughter's have not reconciled with that loss. In fact, a lie Rob tells Sunny about her mother threatens their very lives. He goes on but continues to hide his lie.

Krista is an event planner, determined to be fiercely independent. Her motto is, "Only forward. Never back. And definitely never paused." The issue with that is unless you face and reconcile with the past, how can you ever truly move forward. She pushes forward, always running from and hiding the past.

The lives of these four individuals intersect and come together in a way that none of them expects. The plot of the book centers on MoJo's father's search for her and Sunny's longing for her mother set against the possible impending doom of another epidemic.

The book moves back and forth between their perspectives, slowly developing their connections and revealing their back stories. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the story turns into an action adventure going up the west coast of the United States. All of a sudden, the histories and emotions of lifetimes are resolved, and relationships are cleanly arranged and neatly packaged.

That perhaps is the reason I leave the book slightly unsatisfied. The characters are all interesting. Their back stories are individual, real, and engaging. However, the quick turn into a happily ever after  (as much as that can be true with doom lurking around the corner!) does not work. Life is not that clean and not that neat. Family histories can be resolved. Childhood traumas can be overcome. Just not at the speed at which they seem to occur in this book.

This book has a very clear message. In fact, it is stated outright twice in the final few pages of the book:
  • "See, relations are people with the same blood. But family, that's different. Family is about who gives you hope, who gets involved. And earns the right for forgiveness. Or at least starts down the path."
  • "As a community, we still emphasized the importance of familial ties but finally understood that the definition of family wasn't about blood or even who or what you'd lost. It was about what gave you hope and who was willing to get involved."
I agree with the message. We have family and we have the family we choose. If we are blessed, both bring joy, love, and comfort to our lives. That message is clear from the book, even if had been left unstated.

A Beginning at the End
Blog Tour

Author: Mike Chen

ISBN: 9780778309345, 0778309347

Publication Date: 1/14/2020


Author Bio:

Mike Chen is a lifelong writer, from crafting fan fiction as a child to somehow getting paid for words as an adult. He has contributed to major geek websites (The Mary Sue, The Portalist, Tor) and covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals.

Author Q&A:

Q: Parent characters are a large part of A Beginning at the End. Did you know your character's family backgrounds before you began? How do the characters take form in your writing process?

A: Somewhat. Usually the core problem comes first in my drafting process. I tend to write in layers and my initial drafts are always very light -- initial scenes may only be about ¼ of their final length because I don’t know the characters too well yet. At that stage, I’m trying to find the main conflict of the scene and the voice for their characters. I typically need 5-7 passes through a book to turn it from a 45k-50k word skeleton to a reasonably polished 90-100k word draft. During that time, the characters start to form.

As an example, my current work in progress (which will be released after 2021’s upcoming WE COULD BE HEROES), I’m on my third pass through for the first act and only now am I beginning to understand each character’s unique voice as well as their physical appearances. Core conflicts (such as character X has trouble with character Y) are established during the initial outline phase as part of the initial concept, but the how and why those conflicts happen (Is it family history? Is it a traumatic event? Is it sibling rivalry?), that takes a little longer to establish. 

For the characters in A BEGINNING AT THE END, I started out immediately knowing what drove Krista and Rob. Moira didn’t really become fully three-dimensional until much later, and in fact in early revisions, she was just a minor supporting character. My agent noted that she was far too interesting to push to the side, so the book was rebuilt around her to hold equal footing to Rob and Krista.

Q: Where did you take inspiration for this pandemic? Do you have any other book or film recommendations?

A: Though it wasn’t a direct inspiration for this book, there’s a scene in the second season of The Walking Dead that began the train of thought for A BEGINNING AT THE END. It was the season on Hershel’s farm, and there’s a scene where Lori is trying to go over homework with her son Carl. A lot of viewers mocked the scene at the time with comments like “Why would you do math in the zombie apocalypse?” but I thought that was a smart bit of human grounding against a fantastical backdrop. Because those characters didn’t know if and when the apocalypse would end, and I think it makes sense that 1) a mom would try to keep some form of normalcy for her son 2) they wouldn’t just assume the world was completely over.

Because a lot of apocalyptic fiction focuses on either the event itself or a grim dark survival world, that scene sparked a lot of ideas for me -- what if society did crawl back from the brink, and instead of a true “end of the world” it was more like a big pause button? Then all these people would move past day-to-day survival and suddenly have a lot of trauma to unpack, and i hadn’t really seen that covered much at the time. That seemed really interesting to me, much more so than the idea of tribal factions attacking each other to survive.

Q: Which main character is your favorite? And which was the hardest to write?

A: It's been interesting seeing early reader feedback because the "favorite character" opinion has been pretty evenly split. I think that's a good sign that things are pretty balanced. For me personally, I always viewed Krista as the main character in this book and it was originally written with her to be the main focus (the original draft of this from 2011ish only had her POV and Rob's POV). She has such a snappy voice that it's just fun to write her responses and reactions to stuff, and a big challenge came from cutting out unnecessary dialogue that made it in there simply because she was so fun to write.

The hardest character to write was definitely Sunny. Simply because I needed to get into the head of a seven-year-old. Her POV was one of the last major structural changes my agent recommended before we sold this to my publisher and it was tricky my daughter was still very young at that point (she's still only five). I ran those chapters by my friends who had survived parenting those years for accuracy: complexity of thought, vocabulary, rhythm, etc.

Q: Your characters struggle with confronting their past while their future is so uncertain. What are some important lessons you've learned as a writer that you previously struggled with?

A: I think the keys to success as a writer are also keys to a happy and fulfilled life: don't give up and keep an open mind. Every writer I know that started around my time eventually broke through and got an agent by improving their craft through feedback and simply chipping away. If one book wasn't good enough, then it got shelved as a stepping stone and they marched forward. Doing that requires a certain amount of humility because it recognizes that you've got room to improve, and that improvement is going to come from listening to others rather than being defensive. Those are hard lessons to learn so I try to tell new writers that right away, so they understand the value of harsh-but-true constructive criticism from critique partners -- you'll never make it without that.

Q: What is a genre you don't think you'd ever write? A Beginning at the End and Here and Now and Then are both SF, do you think you would ever write something that's vastly different? What draws you to SF?

A: Writing character-driven stories in sci-fi settings comes pretty naturally to me, as it takes my favorite type of story (slice of life) and my favorite genre and brings them together. I'm fortunate that the market has turned around on that now to support books like mine. If I wrote something different, I imagine it would lean further in one direction or another -- either a contemporary drama or space opera. I am also a big fan of gothic horror, and I would love to try a haunted house story at some point.

As for what draws me to sci-fi, I can't put my finger on it but it's been really important to me my entire life. I grew up on Star Wars and Robotech as cornerstones of my media influences. At the same time, I've never really been too into fantasy despite them often being opposite sides of the same coin. My wife loves both sci-fi and fantasy, and there are things she loves that I just can't get into like The Elder Scrolls.

Q: What are some of your writing goals for the future?

A: Keep writing and not run out of ideas! In a perfect world, I'd love to be able to be a full-time author -- which is basically 50% writing and 50% the business of being an author. I don't think that's feasible since I live in Silicon Valley and need health insurance for a family situation, so I will likely always have one foot in corporate life unless the political landscape changes regarding medical care.

An obvious dream would be to have one of my books be adapted to a movie or TV series -- I'm of the mindset that HERE AND NOW AND THEM would work as a movie while A BEGINNING AT THE END has a deep enough world that it would work well as a TV series. I really want to try writing a video game, something like Telltale's games. And I would love to write for my favorite franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. I've been pretty vocal about Clone Wars-era story ideas, and I'm friends with several authors on the Lucasfilm roster, so fingers crossed.

Q: If there was a global disaster in the future, what would your plan of action be?

A: Well, I have a bunch of animals and family health issues, so I'd say we'd be pretty screwed. I'm pretty organized and have a diplomatic approach, so hopefully that would earn me an in with some survivalists until society stabilizes.

Q: Both of your books, Here and Now and Then & A Beginning at the End, have a strong emotional foundation. Why did you choose that route?

A: It goes back to my favorite types of stories. To me, the emotional core is always the most important part of any story; it turns it from being surface level entertainment to something that resonates deeper.


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

Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Single Thread

Title:  A Single Thread
Author:  Tracy Chevalier
Publication Information:  Viking. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0525558241 / 978-0525558248

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

Opening Sentence:  "Shhh!"

Favorite Quote:  "It is perhaps difficult to understand if you have not had children yourself. The biological imperative of the parent is to protect the child, and when that is impossible it feels like a failure, whatever the circumstances. It is a complicated feeling to live with for the rest of your life."

A Single Thread actually follows a number of story threads within it - the story of Violet Speedwell, the history of a time and place, and a depiction of the arts of bell ringing and of embroidery.

Violet Speedwell lost her brother and her fiancé in World War I. In 1932, she is unmarried. At the time and place, she is considered doomed to be a spinster and as such on the periphery of society. She begins surrounded by her mother, a woman made bitter by her own losses, and her brother, who has a family of his own. Violet's story is of a woman trying to live independently on her own terms despite the limits society tries to impose.

The first world war brought losses beyond measure that lasted far beyond the immediate destruction. Parents lost children. Wives lost husbands. Children lost parents. After the end of the war, the toll of of the losses continued. That is one element of the story of this society. The other element is the intolerant and strict norms that continued to rule the society. Women had their place in society. A relationship was between a man and a woman. And so on. This broader story is told through its impact on Violet and the other characters in the book.

Beyond the societal history, this book presents an interesting depiction of the arts of bell ringing (which I know nothing about) and of embroidery (which I know a little something about). Violet discovers both these arts when she leaves her mother's home to move out on her own to the town of Winchester. Winchester is home to the Winchester Cathedral. There is a group of devoted men who are the bell ringers of the cathedral. There is also a group of devoted women - the broderers - who embroider and sew kneelers and cushions to bring color and comfort to the worshippers in the cathedral. Violet finds friendship and more in both.

I love the premise of a woman staking a claim to her independence. I enjoy the picture of the time and place. I appreciate the ending, giving voice to the power of sisterhood. That being said, ultimately, I find myself not the reader for this book for a few reasons.

First and foremost is the fact that the balance of the book for me ends up with the depiction of the history - the cathedral, the bell ringing, and the embroidering. Violet and her story become a vehicle for the history rather than the history forming a backdrop for the story. Historical fiction needs to find that balance between history and fiction, and in this one, the fiction fell behind.

Second, one storyline that surrounds Violet and hints at violence against women seems a jarring note and unnecessary to Violet's quest for independence. It seems to just not fit. I continue to think about it  and still cannot determine why other than to reinforce society's concern that a woman alone is at risk. That is an unfortunate statement in a book about an independent woman.

Thirdly, the pace of the story is very slow, especially as the ending that comes as no surprise. Finally, I do wish that a woman's story of independence and sisterhood would remain that and not find its way into a romantic relationship. My greatest appreciation for the book is in its look at an interesting time in history that is not the setting for too many books I have read.


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

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Little Bookshop on the Seine

Title:  The Little Bookshop on the Seine
Author:  Rebecca Raisin
Publication Information:  HQN. 2020. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1335050272 / 978-1335050274

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

Opening Sentence:  "With a heavy heart I placed the sign in the display window."

Favorite Quote:  "My life is too lonely without fictional people crowding my mind."

Paris and bookshops - I am sold based on the cover and title alone. I love books about books and bookshops. Setting it in Paris makes it all the more charming. That being said, the book has to deliver on character and story otherwise the initial charm wears off fast.

Initially, I am not too sure about this one. The book begins with a woman's physical longing ... and descriptions thereof ... for her boyfriend named Ridge. Boyfriends named Ridge and straight up romances, particularly those with physical descriptions are not my reading material of choice. Fortunately, this book retains the romance without too much physicality and also manages to turn into a story beyond the romance. The book delivers with a sweet story about a woman finding herself, about friendship, and also about love all centered around Once Upon a Time, a bookshop in Paris.

Sarah Smith runs a bookshop in Ashford, Connecticut. The shop is not doing well. Sarah finds herself often alone, as her boyfriend's job as a journalist calls for him to travel around the world. Although surrounded by a loving family and wonderful friends, Sarah longs for something more. "I'm tired of being the same person, half-living, all this waiting for something to happen ... I have to make it happen."

It just so happens that Sarah's friend Sophie owns and runs a bookshop in Paris. For her own reasons, Sophie needs to get away. She proposes a temporary bookshop exchange. Sophie goes to Connecticut and runs Sarah's shop. Sarah's goes to Paris and runs Sophie. Before she has a chance to over think it, Sarah says yes.

The bookshop in Paris brings, of course, the city itself. It also brings its own cast of characters. Each character comes with their own baggage of the past - family attachments, betrayals, career aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. Some become instant friends, and some pose more of a challenge.

The biggest challenge for Sarah is finding her own voice - to run the bookshop and establish her authority, to express her feelings on her boyfriend's choices, and, most importantly, to learn for herself that she has the skill and confidence to tackle anything that comes her way. "Paris swept us up, and made us whole, may we never wander alone no matter where we are."

 Of course, there is a romance or two or three in the mix as well. After all, that is to be expected. What is unexpected is that the book and the romances do not quite end up where I expect. Don't get me wrong, the ending still ties everything up in a nice, neat package as you might expect. However, it does not all tie up in the way I expect. No spoilers but the author Q&A below does give a hint. To me, the unexpected adds a depth and dimension to the book that take it beyond just a sweet, feel good story of a woman finding love in Paris.


The Little Bookshop on the Seine
Blog Tour

Author: Rebecca Raisin 

ISBN: 9781335012500
Publication Date: 1/7/2020
Publisher: HQN Books

Author Bio:

Rebecca Raisin is the author of several novels, including the beloved Little Paris series and the Gingerbread Café trilogy, and her short stories have been published in various anthologies and fiction magazines.

Author Q&A:

Q: Have you ever been to Paris? If so, what are some of your favorite Parisian things?
A: I’ve been lucky enough to go Paris four times and do a bit of exploring for the books. It’s my favourite city in the world and if I could up and move I’d do it! I love the bookshops of Paris, particularly the secondhand shops that are dusty and musty and disorderly. You never know what you’ll find and that makes it magical. If you’re in Paris find the Abbey Bookshop, it’s full to bursting with English books and it’s a treasure trove if you have time to hunt! I also love French food - who doesn’t?! My favourite place to eat is the Christian Constant bistros. He has one for every budget and they’re all glorious. If you splurge once, I highly recommend it’s there. 

The Ritz is also a must-see, from Bar Hemingway to Salon Proust, it’s an experience like no other walking in the footsteps of those literary greats. Buly 1803 is the most beautiful perfume shop in all the world, it’s like stepping back in time. My favourite is the rose oil… ooh la la. And holding a special place in my heart is Point Zero Paris, the exact centre of the city and a place where magic happens - you’ll have to read the book to find out more...

Q: What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: I hope you do something reckless, something that scares you, jump out of that comfort zone and do that thing you’ve always dreamed of! What’s stopping you - fear, money, work, life? You can make it happen if only you take the plunge! Open yourself to new experiences and people and don't take the taxi, walk until your feet are numb and find those lost laneways and hidden alleys and see what you find! 

Q: What drew you into this particular genre?
A: I love love, but Little Bookshop is also about another kind of love, the love of a place, or a feeling...writing this genre leaves it open to interpretation and anything goes as long you tie it all up at the end in a satisfying way! 

Q: If you could sit down with any character in your book, what would you ask them and why?
A: I’d sit down with bookworm Sarah and ask her what she really thought of Luiz… I am still conflicted about that thread and what I could have done but didn’t!

Q: What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
A: I’m currently editing Aria’s Travelling Bookshop, which is about a Van Lifer who sells her wares as she explores France! (Are you detecting a pattern here!?) It’s the follow up to Rosie’s Travelling Tea Shop, which was released last March. Both books are about a different way of living, about having less but gaining more as you go. I’ve loved writing Rosie and Aria!


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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Starless Sea

Title:  The Starless Sea
Author:  Erin Morgenstern
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2019. 512 pages.
ISBN:  038554121X / 978-0385541213

Book Source:  I read this book based on how much I enjoyed the author's first book The Night Circus.

Opening Sentence:  "There is a pirate in the basement."

Favorite Quote:  "There is no fixing. There is only moving forward in the brokenness."

Keys. swords. Bees. Ancient books. Books worth stealing and worth protecting. A secret, labyrinth like library with acolytes, guardians, and keepers. A young man who is reader and a gamer. A fable about fate and time. A story of a pirate and a girl. A tale of owl kings. An adventure that may or may not be real and may or may not be happening. The dividing line between reality and fantasy is blurry not just because this is a fiction work but for the characters in the story itself. Who is real? Who is part of an imagined story? Does that line blend? Is it all real?

To some extent, that is what this book is about. Not the most clear of descriptions, but that is absolutely this book.

I love books that define themselves:

"Reading a novel, he supposes, is like playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at this particular game. (Though he sometimes wishes choose-your-own-adventure novels would come back into fashion.)" The choices end up being predetermined, but there are so many threads to be followed that, at times, it appears that you may be choosing after all. The "why" behind the story does come, and it connects all the dots between the stories within the story and reinforces that the choices were predetermined.

"Stories are personal, you relate or you don't." This book is clearly not for everybody. It is a twisting, turning flight of fancy that is at times very, very slow and at times so jumbled that it is hard to keep clear. However, for me it works. Like The Night Circus, the visual writing leaves a complete image of   the starless sea and all the surrounding harbors, even though none of them exist. More than anything else, what makes this book work is the picture it paints. The "where" of the book becomes at least as important if not more so than the "who, what, when". The "why" is the ultimate revelation of the book. The writing builds an entire fantastical world with sights, sounds, and even smells of the starless sea and its harbors.

"Books are always better when read rather than explained." This statement is absolutely true for this book. It is not a linear story. However, I willing follow along all the paths until they do come together, and I am left wondering what happens next. I am not quite ready for the adventure to be over. The ending hints at a new beginning perhaps? I am still not entirely sure what happened or rather if what I understand is what was intended. To me, it does not matter because what I understand becomes my unique experience with this book.

"Sometimes life gets weird. You can try to ignore it or you can see where weird takes you." The book is different from much of what I have read except perhaps for Erin Morgenstern's first book. For both, I follow the weird, and it leads to an enjoyable reading experience.


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

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Water Dancer

Title:  The Water Dancer
Author:  Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publication Information:  One World. 2019. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0399590595 / 978-0399590597

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

Opening Sentence:  "And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south."

Favorite Quote:  "They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us. They had no notion of our ultimate aims and desires. They were entranced by our songs, but they could never know the deeper meaning, because not knowing was essential to their power. To see a child right from under its mother, you must only know that mother in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt-water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot understand him as human.  You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hadn't be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done because you cannot rule as is needed."

Hiram Walker is a slave with extraordinary powers. This book is his journey to freedom - literal freedom, freedom as he reconciles with the memories of his childhood, freedom as he learns to acknowledge and use the gift he has been given, and freedom that comes from enabling and ensuring the freedom of others. From enslaved North Carolina to the North and back again and yet again.

Through Hiram's story, the book tells the story of a time and place and a reckoning of the dark history of our own nation. It is a history that must be remembered and acknowledged and accounted for.

That being said, I am truly torn about this book. I wanted to absolutely love this book. I expected to absolutely love it based on my reaction to Between the World and Me by Mr. Coates.

Quality. Low. Tasked. These are the terms used in this book to describe the roles in this story of slavery. The "quality" include both the enslavers and those dedicated to the abolitionist movement. The "low" are of both races, mercenaries looking to get ahead by any means possible. The "tasked" are the slaves. Slavery is "the task." Why the terms? The terms are memorable because they are so often repeated in the book. Then again, why not call it what it is? So often in real life, history is given a spin based on the terms used. Is there a further meaning? I look for one but do not discover it.

As with Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, this book also introduces magical realism. The Underground Railroad included a literal railroad. Th book includes the idea of "conduction" in that a person can jump time and place. In both books, the "magic" introduces an element into the story the pulls it far from the history into fiction. I don't really understand why. The history is a brutal one. Why mitigate by suggesting there is magical solution if only the right people can be found.

All historical fiction is just that - fiction. The fiction label allows the history to be massaged into a compelling story. However, this history itself is so compelling that it needs no embellishment especially not one based in magic. The embellishment in many ways diminishes the history by introducing an idea completely unbelievable into a history that must be believed and remembered. I am left wondering why.

These concerns aside, aspects of the writing pull me right into the middle of the story, such that I cry and feel every emotion along with the characters. I find myself highlighting thought after thought because it speaks to me. That is where the history being told is found:
  • "For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savaged..."
  • "The tree of our family was parted - branches here, roots there - parted for their lumber."
  • "Someone was inspecting me, I had adjusted to it by then, and that alone is the worst of it - that a man could feel his violation as natural."
That is the history that speaks to me in this book and gives it its power - the power of remembrance.


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