Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Everything Belongs To Us: A Book Review

Choppy, uneven---those are the terms that come to mind after reading EVERYTHING BELONGS TO US. So much potential for an intriguing story, but then it devolves into an ordinary 'love gone astray' melodrama...

The author presents South Korea in the late 1970s, using a rich girl, a poor girl, and a well-off young man to examine the social inequalities that churned below the surface. Shortly before the country's leader was assassinated, actually, and doesn't that sound like a tale filled with potential for conflict?

That is not the story that Ms. Wuertz chooses to tell. Instead, she uses the social issues to paint the backdrop of what is a very ordinary story of young people meeting at university, falling in love, and then falling out of love. Think love triangle sort of thing, with financial incentives looming ahead.

It was hard to read the book through because it dragged in places. The prose is elegant, but the storytelling ability needs a bit more work.

My Husband's Wife: A Book Review

How to review a thriller when I'm not a fan....

How to review a book featuring thoroughly unlikeable characters interacting in ways that don't seem quite plausible but feel contrived, for the purpose of moving the narrative in the direction desired by the author...

One of the characters appears first as a child of nine, and ends up a bit of a sociopath but the develpmental trajectory isn't there. Nothing beyond a bit of bullying, and the author telling rather than showing the creation of a woman unhinged. As for the stars of the novel, Lily and Ed, their relationship exists because the author wants it to exist. In real life, two such disagreeable creatures would have divorced almost immediately after their marriage, with Lily so sure that her new husband still has a thing for his previous lover. Move on and get on with it, you want to shout, but instead they remain united, endlessly bickering. Just saying that Lily still loves Ed doesn't work unless something happens to show that love, but theres's not much showing in MY HUSBAND'S WIFE.

This is the sort of thing that I can't honestly rate because I don't care for the genre and this particular offering did not draw my interest. I'll leave it to others to judge if MY HUSBAND'S WIFE meets the requirements for engaging psychological thriller-ness. As for me, I plodded along, not really caring who did what to whom, all the way through to the ending.

And I only carried on to the end because I received a free copy from Penguin Random House in exchange for a review, and I wanted to meet expectations.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Windy City Blues: A Book Review

The Rolling Stones have recently returned to their blues roots and that means the legend of Chess Records gets a fresh airing. Timely indeed for author Renee Rosen, whose latest novel revolves around the rise of the storied business.

WINDY CITY BLUES wraps fiction with fact. A lot of fact. Dry as toast fact. It's a habit of the author, to use every scrap of research, to the point that you just want to tell her you don't need detailed directions that include every street the character must cross to get from her home to the Chess Records headquarters.

The novel is set against a backdrop of Jim Crow prejudice in Chicago after the Second World War, featuring fictional characters Leeba (white, Jewish) and Red (black, Christian). She's working with old pals Leonard and Phil Chess, helping build up their record business behind the scenes, and falls in love with an up and coming bluesman from the Deep South.

But there is so much more going on, what with the opening salvo of the civil rights movement sprouting and the Chess brothers producing what were called 'race' records to fill a niche in the black entertainment sector, making money and discovering talent and shifting as the industry turned to rhythm and blues.

It is a complex tale with many threads, to say nothing of the name dropping that fits in with the assortment of dry facts mentioned above. It often feels quite contrived, requiring a reader to do some serious suspension of disbelief.

The characters are relatively one-dimensional, the story-telling a bit wooden. The spark of life is dim in this novel, as if Ms. Rosen is relating a story like a news reporter rather than a novelist. Such is her style, however, and it may work for some readers.

Loose ends are tied up at the end in a way that falls flat because it feels too artificial, the author driving the narrative rather than the characters. The ending is a happy one for most of the participants, Leeba rubs elbows with both the Rolling Stones and Dr. Martin Luther King, she saves an orphan black child, and her husband finds his purpose at radio station WVON. Which was founded by the Chess Brothers when they began to burn out from the stress of running Chess Records.

Well-researched, with a tendency to plod along as the timeline marches on, WINDY CITY BLUES is a bit of a slog, but with some interesting elements for those interested in Chicago history. I often struggled to keep my eyes open while reading, but I wasn't sorry that I stuck with the book and finished it to the end.




Friday, December 09, 2016

The Realities Of Real Estate

Here and there, neighborhoods are gentrifying. That's a convoluted way of saying that the poor are being pushed out by the wealthier who want to reside in that same area.

It's a straightforward process, with a few artistic types acting the role of pioneer. They find cheap space for their workshops, create art, and attract those with the means to pay for said art. Then someone yearning to open up a restaurant featuring their own style of culinary wizardry realizes that those tourists could use a spot to have cocktails and perhaps a light supper, and the next thing you know a few unique eating establishments open up.
In lovely Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Young people looking for affordable housing but with the amenities they crave, like boutique-type eateries, start moving in. Those who owned property see an opportunity to cash in on their hovel, and the whole thing spirals. Soon, real estate values are soaring and owners see the answer to their retirement dreams. They finally have a cash cow to be milked, and all because they bought in at the right time and just happened to be in the right place when the neighborhood changed.

Parts of Brooklyn are becoming quite trendy for the younger set that cannot hope to afford Manhattan prices but want to have a place nearby to call home. For Henry Zook and Mary Gannett, the ongoing gentrification has turned into their windfall.

They own BookCourt, a popular indie book shop, and they own the shop itself. When they launched their establishment thirty-five years ago, the price of Brooklyn real estate was manageable for the couple, who earned their living from selling books. Not the most lucrative of professions, is it?

Bookselling has changed over the years, as any reader can tell you. The big box stores came in and sucked up much of the clientele, offering lower prices that the indies could not meet. Then along came Amazon, with its ease of shopping as long as you didn't care about thumbing through an actual book and reading whatever page you wanted, rather than the first few that Amazon allowed digitally.

Zook and Gannett navigated through the turmoil and their shop became a popular spot as attitudes towards Amazon changed, along with the residential make-up of the area. BookCourt managed to hang on and sell books.

Back in the long-ago days, when the neighborhood was a bit blighted, the couple lived upstairs and had an easy commute to work. Over the years, however, the marriage fell apart and they left that apartment, making the trek to the office longer. At the same time, they grew older and saw retirement ahead, the golden days when they would not have to crawl out of bed, joints creaking, and spend another day hoping to make a few sales while dealing with the general public.

Along came Eastern Capital, with plenty of capital to throw around. The book shop is in a prime location for redevelopment, be it a tower of condominiums or a mixed use space with shiny new retail at the ground floor and expensive, luxury apartments above. Where BookCourt sits, young millenials and aging hipsters want to live.

Sure, the indie bookshop was one of the amenities that attracted gentrifiers to begin with, but as with any wave of urban renewal, those who were there first are also the first to go if the price is right. For Mr. Zook and Ms. Gannett, in their sixties and looking to lay their burden down, the price offered by Eastern Capital was the reward for taking a chance on a chancy neighborhood, investing in a shop selling books, and slaving away for thirty-five years in the hope that they could save up enough to not have to work until they dropped.

It's the circle of real estate life. The shop will be missed by those who liked having an independent book vendor down the street, whether they bought their books there or not. But other entrepreneurs will step in to fill the niche, some other book lover who wants to share their passion with those who have the disposable income to cover the price of a book.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Patriots: A Book Review

Before anyone knew how wretched life would become under communism, several naive American idealists thought that the Marxist philosophy represented a paradise on earth. Author Sana Krasikov takes off from that point and creates a riveting novel in the process.

THE PATRIOTS interweaves the narratives of Florence, a progressive Jewish girl from New York, and that of her adult son after her death. Florence becomes involved in a pro-Russian group during her time at university in the height of the Great Depression, falling so in love with all she thinks it will be that she emigrates. The reader knows ahead of time that all did not run according to plan, due to a well-placed prologue that piques the interest. A knowledge of history would give you a clue as well, but you do not need to be up on the subject to enjoy the novel.

Florence's son Julian has business in Russia, during Putin's first term, and while he deals with his family's past and the emotional scars inflicted, he is also trying to convince his own son to leave Russia and find a future in a country that is not a massive criminal enterprise.

The reader follows Florence's journey into what will become hell as Stalin wrests power and gradually turns on the Jews who thought the pogroms were relics from the Tsarist era. Her tale is one of survival that comes at a high cost, a slow descent that proves captivating to a reader's interest.

At the same time, Julian wrestles with his own ghosts as a child tossed into an orphanage after his parents were caught up in Stalin's paranoia. His involvement in a petroleum industry deal begins to mirror some of his mother's choices, and he will face his own dilemma on whether or not to cooperate with powers beyond his control.

The author on occasion becomes the omniscient narrator but the overall style of the book is one of pure storytelling. As a work of historical fiction, THE PATRIOTS brings you into a foreign place that is made less foreign with Julian's modern-era narrative, thus tying the past and present together. What makes the book particularly compelling is Florence's determination to live when the world around her grows increasingly bizarre and contradictory, when a positive action taken at one point becomes an act of treason when viewed several years later.

I would highly recommend this book.

And thanks to Penguin Random House for sharing the review copy with me.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

No Disrespect

She was his girlfriend, in her mind, and as such she had certain rights to his time and attention.

He was over her. Therefore, she had no claims to make.

She called him.

He ignored her calls.

She shot him.

Katrina Harris had known the young man since they were kids, riding that first wave of hormones in junior high. They became a couple and she attached meaning to the relationship that only a first love can hold. Terms like soulmates are often applied by those without the life experience to really understand what that means. In her mind, it was forever.

After the initial whiff of infatuation wore off for him, however, it was time to move on. After all, when a young man attends high school and starts meeting other people, and forming other friendships, those childhood crushes fade away into the realm of pleasant memory.

In Katrina's case, that was not an acceptable outcome. She had her man and she intended to keep him. Sure he said it was over, but she believed in her power to persuade him, to make him see things clearly. Words would accomplish her goal. She would talk to him and convince him that they were still a couple, and he was mistaken.

A girl can't very well convince a boy if he won't talk to her. If he won't take her calls or texts.

One day, when his phone was ringing, he handed it to someone else. Tell her to stop calling me, he might have said. Maybe it was his new girlfriend who was the messenger.

The police aren't saying, but you can picture it all in your head. He's had enough and doesn't want to talk to Katrina, so he has the new lady in his life tell the ex to stop calling. Nothing says 'It's over' like the replacement lover saying it. Pretty much spells things out.

With that, Katrina felt the full force of her man's disrespect. At any rate, that's how she perceived it. Her boyfriend had disrespected her by not talking to her when she demanded that they chat, and then he really disrespected her by having someone else take one of her calls and tell her to stop calling.

What's a girl to do?

In one part of American culture, the girl would run off sobbing to her girlfriends who would then spread malicious gossip about the ex, painting him as the worst dregs of humanity.

In another part of American culture, the part that is infamous for the indiscriminate use of guns, a girl gets a weapon and shoots the boy.

Katrina Harris has been charged with attempted first-degree murder, among other things. There is no doubt that it was a crime of passion, considering the fact that she left her purse behind with all her identification in it. Pretty easy to figure out who did the shooting when the cops have your work I.D. in hand, retrieved at the scene of the crime.

Teens do stupid things, to be sure, but is it stupidity that drove 16-year-old Katrina Harris to try to murder another human being because she felt disrespected? Or is there something deeper, more sinister, something that won't be solved by lawmakers barking about curbing gun violence with new legislation? Not everyone uses a gun to settle a question of honor. At least not in the 21st Century. Except in certain segments of America, where the notion of personal honor has become a matter of life and death.

Maybe when you don't have much else you can call your own besides your honor, you tend to exaggerate its importance. Maybe when it's all you have, you can't walk away from the bruise to the ego that is a break-up.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Conclave: A Book Review

So much mystery surrounds the selection of a Pope. The intrigue, the human failings cloaked in piety, the potential for the sorts of shenanigans you'd find in any political contest. It's all there in CONCLAVE.

Author Robert Harris presents the Papal Conclave through the eyes of the Dean of the College of Cardinals, a holy man who prays often and with sincerity. He really believes, does Cardinal Lomeli.

Using current events intertwined with imagination, the story unfolds behind the closed doors of the Vatican, with the elector cardinals cut off from outside communication. Things start off smoothly, with the initial vote and the voting trends and the like as leaders emerge, but rumours reach the Cardinal's ear and he has to check things out. One can't have a Pope enmeshed in scandal, not these days. Cardinal Lomeli is determined to protect the Church at all costs.

One enquiry leads to more questions, and more political maneuvering, as the leading candidates campaign in their subtle way. Under pressure to pick a Pope before the laity starts thinking there's some serious problems with the Church hierarchy (the pre-Vatican II sorts duking it out with the liberal wing, if you will), Cardinal Lomeli faces a crisis of faith. How to out a corrupt cardinal, if indeed the man is corrupt, or is it best to deal with the corruption later and appease the public?

The tension is subtle, but it is there as you turn the pages to see what comes next and how the Cardinal will unmask the wolves in sheep's clothing who would be the shepherd. The novel is great fun to read, even with the frequent interspersions of Bible verse that has me wondering if I've forgotten the words, I've lost track of the revisions that came through a few years ago, or Mr. Harris is relying on his heretical Church of England Bible for the quotes.

I would recommend this to my Catholic friends, of course, but anyone who enjoys political thrillers would find CONCLAVE a fascinating read.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy.

Days Like These: A Book Review

You've stuck to a reading diet of substantial literature, avoiding anything too saccharine. But at some point you need a little sweet to satisfy that craving for the literary equivalent of candy floss.

DAYS LIKE THESE is a highly predictable piece of feel-good writing, all empty calories that amuse without asking much of you in return. The novel follows Judy Schofield, British grandmother, and her brief escapade as caretaker of her exceedingly precious grandchildren. Hilarity ensues. There is wit to be found in these pages.

It's the sort of fiction that is often set in highly competitive New York City circles, with all those tiger parents looking to get their offspring an advantage in future advancement. The world that Judy falls into is packed with after school activities and learning oppportunities and high pressure to perform, which she as the clueless woman of a certain age has never experienced. For variety, the setting is London, but the same sort of people populate this novel. The alternate location shakes things up a bit, which is always welcome.

For those who had their children later in life, you might be cringing at the thought that author Sue Margolis thinks the average 62-year-old female has no idea what the competitive elementary school environment involves, but this book is all about suspending disbelief so swallow your stung pride. No, you're not all that old at 62. But there's a love story in here and it just wouldn't work so well if the Judy character was in her 70's, right?

Ah yes, there's romantic tension and secondary characters having the usual sorts of issues, and let us not forget the queen bee-mean girl character who sits atop the parental food chain. She gets her come-uppance, of course, because that's what always happens in these sweet little novels that you can consume in a weekend.

With all the unpleasantness in the world, this is a perfect time to settle in with Sue Margolis' newest. Escape into a place where everything comes right in the end and the endings are happy. Sometimes you need to indulge in a heavy dose of sugar.

With thanks to Penguin Random House for the early review copy.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Love, Alice: A Book Review

What if Philomena Lee had died, instead of her son Michael Hess? And in this telling, he's straight instead of gay (but not to worry, we'll be sure to be diverse and include a secondary gay character in our tale), and the woman he's drawn to does the hunting down of his mother?

That, in essence, is the premise for LOVE, ALICE by Barbara Davis.

Lacking the power of Katie Hanrahan's THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES, the book touches on the horror of the Magdalene laundries and the lives that were destroyed by religious tyranny. In this case, the novel looks at Alice Tandy, up the stick and the father of her unborn child dead at sea. Her story is told through a series of letters that she pens to the child she was forced to give up for adoption, the letters discovered by a woman who is grieving the suicide of her fiance.

Unlike Philomena, this unwed mother has died by the time the story opens. Her mother turns up looking for her, not knowing the girl's been dead for nearly thirty years, and bumps into Dovie Larkin who then sets off on a quest to solve the mystery. What became of Alice's child, who she was seeking when she emigrated to South Carolina? Can solving this mystery bring closure to Alice's mother and Dovie as well?

The fact that Dovie's gay-dar is non-existent can be an impediment to a reader, who may very well be screaming out the answer to one question long before the author lets Dovie figure things out. Get on with it, for feck's sake, you may be saying, but don't give up. Except for that middle section that drags, the rest of the novel moves along at a comfortable pace.

The narrative gets a bit chunky when the author needs to present more than can reasonably be shown through an epistle. Is there anything more awkward than a letter that breaks out into dialogue? As if anyone would actually write a letter in that way? That can be the problem when one type of novel structure is used, and then doesn't quite fit. Somewhat distracting, after the majority of the backstory was presented in a standard form that felt real. It can stretch the suspension of disbelief to make a sharp turn near the end of the novel, but once committed to using missives, Ms. Davis had to keep going.

The misery of the Magdalene laundries gets a passing reference because this is a work of women's fiction that features a strong romantic element and plenty of emotion. You'll probably guess which character is actually Alice's child, a fairly predictable outcome as it is the sort of conclusion one expects from light fiction like this.

If you want real insight into the damage done by the Sisters of Mercy in their slave labor camps, read Katie Hanrahan's novel. If you just want something with a feel good ending, LOVE, ALICE will do.