Saturday, July 23, 2016

Harmony: A Book Review

How do seemingly intelligent people fall for the purveyors of snake oil? That query lies at the heart of HARMONY.

The novel is told largely through the eyes of Iris, the sibling of an autistic sister, a use of POV that gives the author some space to tell the story from a more naive perspective. She does not understand why her parents, in a quest to find a cure (or a method for coping) with Tilly's anti-social behavior, leave the world behind and follow their autism guru into an isolated wilderness where said guru is completely in charge.

Through flashbacks told by the mother, the lead-up to the relocation is presented. Increasingly desperate, and increasingly whingey, Alexandra tells the reader how alone she was, how desperate for help, but as a reader you might notice how obsessed she is with what the neighbors will think when her daughter acts out in public. Can she not just tell onlookers that her child is autistic? It's not as if the others have never heard of (or met someone with) the condition.

The prologue is a waste of words and you'd do well to skip it, along with the epilogue that reads like an exercise from a creative writing course. The novel itself is filled with tension as Iris and Tilly chafe at the rules of Camp Harmony's regime, while Scott the autism guru comes apart at the seams when his control over everyone's behavior cannot be as absolute as he demands. That alone keeps the pages turning, while skimming over Alexandra's litany of parental torment. 

Readers get a sense of impending doom as small things go wrong at Camp Harmony, although the climax feels a trifle forced. Not a bad novel, not a brilliant work of fiction, but entertaining enough for a weekend read.

The review copy was provided by Penguin Random House, for which I thank them.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

With Love From The Inside: A Book Review

There's a powerful opening for you. The protagonist reveals her current abode is death row in prison. Talk about things blowing up to grab a reader's interest.

The narrative moves between Grace Bradshaw, said inmate, and her daughter Sophie who has made herself a new life far from the scandal of having a mother doing time for infanticide. Grace is preparing for her execution by writing a journal for Sophie, while Sophie is grappling with the lies she has told to hide the fact that her mother was convicted of murdering her baby brother.

There are the usual cruel, insensitive prison guards and the misunderstood fellow convicts to populate the story, while Sophie is keeping a watchful eye on a neighbor with designs on her well-to-do husband. Typical suburban fare, you could say.

But the clock is ticking, with the execution date set and Sophie finally deciding to contact her mother and come clean about her past. In the process, she uncovers evidence that could set her mother free, but will she reach the governor in time? And how is she to tell her husband that he has a mother-in-law, and his wife was not in reality an orphan when they married?

The tension builds up as Sophie and Grace reconnect while the lawyer seeks clemency, making for much turning of pages. Women readers looking for a tale with heart and positive messages about the power of family bonds will enjoy this one. There is a touch of Christian influence spread throughout, what with Grace being the wife of a minister, but it is a light touch that fits with the character. You might get the impression that Grace is passive, yielding endlessly to the dictates of her faith and all those tidbits of advice that you'd get from the Protestant church ladies. She does not come across as a fighter, but as someone resigned to her fate because she's going to be with God so it's not so bad, is it?

Again, in a bow to the average female reader, Sophie's husband is painted as a near saint, madly in love with her even after he finds out she's been less than honest with him. Despite the brief episode of upset, he comes through and supports her efforts to exonerate her mother completely, even if it means damaging his career trajectory. Sometimes you need a simple kind of story without too many complications, right?

So, does Grace get her reprieve and a new trial? You'll have to read the novel to find out.

Thanks, Penguin Random House, for providing this book for review.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Gentleman: A Book Review

Some books are read for the plot. THE GENTLEMAN is a book you read to enjoy the voice.

There is a plot, of course. It centers on young Lionel Savage, a proper gentleman who runs out of money and so must marry it. While hiding from one of his wife's society parties (he does not love his wife, as he makes plain. He is the narrator, by the way) his solitude is broken by a visit from THE GENTLEMAN, none other than the devil himself.

The next thing Mr. Savage knows, his wife is gone and he's quite sure that he inadvertently sold her to the Devil (of Dev'l as he prefers to say it. He is a poet and only needs the one syllable). He wants to get her back, and in league with his brother-in-law he attempts to organize an adventure to Hell to rescue his wife, whom he suddenly realizes he loves.

Silly? Silly indeed, but told with such over-the-top dialogue and absurb humour that you will thoroughly enjoy this madness. The creativity is striking, as Mr. Savage and his coterie try to figure out how one gets to Hell. Some have compared this novel to the work of P.G. Wodehouse, and that is perhaps the best way to put it.


I highly recommend this book to all who need a break from a world too filled with harsh reality. Take a small vacation and get lost in some witty prose.

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

Pokemon Go Meets Urban Reality

Pokemon Go get mugged
It's all so cute, the game that gets people out of the house and moving. We need incentive to exercise, because better health just isn't enough of a motivator to burn off some calories.

Pokemon Go has been all over the news lately. Wherever you turn, there's some reference to the phone-based game that has taken the techno-savvy world by storm. Everyone's playing it, doesn't it feel that way? You hear chatter constantly about Pokemon Go and catching one or another of the little digital creatures like it's a quest with world consequences.

Pokemon Go has run up against urban reality in Chicago. It isn't the harmless game as portrayed.

One of the problems cited with Pokemon Go is the distraction factor. Players are so totally focused on their cell phone screens in their effort to catch the critter that they are oblivious to their surroundings. You've probably heard stories of players walking into traffic or crashing into fellow pedestrians as they play the game and forget that they are not sitting on their couch.

For one Chicago player, the distraction proved quite painful.

An Edgewater resident went out for a late-night stroll near the lakefront to catch a few Pokemon. What better place than an open park, a wide bike path or a relatively quiet street to play without danger of colliding with fellow players chasing after the same quarry? His partner was previously occupied, and what's a man to do with time on his hands and no one to pass it with?

Off he went, to chase the elusive Pokemon hiding near Lake Michigan. Hot on the trail, he followed the path that Pokemon led him on, right into a pedestrian underpass.

At night.

In the dark.

Alone.

So would anyone familiar with life in Chicago these days be surprised to learn that a gang of three teenagers jumped him?

Phone theft is such a common crime these days. Kids swipe the phone from the hands of a distracted owner and they're gone to the nearest shady phone dealer in their run-down neighborhood. Shady phone dealer wipes the phone before the victim has a chance to locate the iPhone, the kids get a few bucks, and the phone's owner gets to be another statistic.

The Pokemon Go player was engrossed in the game, and never noticed the vultures hovering. If he had been on his usual game, the urban walk with eyes in the back of the head wide open, he would not have made for an easy target.

The thugs used the classic distraction technique of fists to head and torso, took the phone, and would have taken the man's wallet once he was down if not for a few other pedestrians who noticed the commotion.

Instead of capturing Pokemon in the pedestrian tunnel, the player caught a little hell. He went to the hospital to have his injuries seen to, but the phone is gone and he's a bit wiser today.

Forget the tales of people walking off cliffs in a distracted daze. If you dare to play Pokemon Go in Chicago, bring a partner. Or an armed guard.

Why make it easier on the thieves who see Pokemon Go players as so many fools just asking to be robbed?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Dollhouse: A Book Review

Journalist Fiona Davis makes her ficiton debut with THE DOLLHOUSE, and wouldn't you know it but her protagonist is a journalist. Much like herself, would you say?

Fictional journalist Rose Lewin is starting over in both the work and personal spheres when she encounters a mysterious old woman who also lives at the former Barbizon Hotel, now a luxury condominium building with spaces reserved for the oldest tenants. She's a bit of a mystery woman, this Darby McLaughlin, having lived at the Barbizon from the days it housed young single woman in the early 1950's.

Ms. Davis intertwines the narratives of Rose, with her love life in tatters, and Darby the naif who befriends a hotel maid with tragic results. Bits and pieces of the tragedy come to light as Rose investigates the past, and the reader gets to pick up the bread crumbs along the trail as the story unfolds.

In general, the novel is a pedestrian effort that follows the formula of how to write a novel, and it opens strong. After the opening, however, the author demonstrates her background of telling stories, rather than showing them. Much of the action taken by the characters feels directed entirely by the author, rather than the characters.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, the movements felt forced and a bit artificial, almost unbelievable. It's more than a case of an unreliable narrator. It's an issue with telling how untrustworthy a character is, instead of showing it. When the cause of Darby's disfigurement is revealed, the episode plays false. As for the happy reunion of two former lovers, the couple comes together with an amity that is quite fictional as the author wants a happy ending even though the backstory would suggest something else, more complex perhaps but not so pat.

The novel is easy to read, and like a literary version of empty calories it won't fill you up or contribute to your lean, mean intellectual weight. Make it a summer read, light and breezy, and don't scoff too much at the way the loose threads are tied up a bit too neatly at the end.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for providing this review copy.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Guilty Minds: A Book Review

Someone's tried to bring down the Chief Justice of the United States, a web of lies we're told, and in comes Nick Heller to dig into the dirt to expose the truth. A fine start to a thriller, and author Joseph Finder leads his reader in like a roller coaster climbing lazily to the top of a hill that won't be seen until you've crested it.

The novel is a bit of a roller coaster ride, with a bit of excitement at the beginning that is just the beginning. The issue with the potential scandal is quickly dispelled, but that only sends the reader deeper into a more involved scenario with far greater complexity. There are plenty of twists and turns to the narrative as Nick Heller probes beyond the surface question and tries to uncover the real actors who put the scandal into motion, to uncover their motives.

Without getting himself killed, of course. That's what a thriller is all about, after all, creating scenarios of great danger that build up as the mystery gets closer to solution. Joseph Finder does this sort of thing quite well, with tight prose that never falls off into the hard-boiled realm.

There are plenty of techie gadgets and electronic snooping that appear without intruding, the purpose explained just enough to let you know what the device will do, and then what it will not do when the intrepid investigator lands in another tight squeeze.

How can I say more about the plot without giving things away? Let's just say that the action takes place largely in the Washington, D.C. area, some high-powered people are involved in a devious plot that is more intricate than first appears, and the protagonist develops a relationship with the woman journalist who thought she had the scoop of her life when she was handed the story about the morally righteous Chief Justice enjoying the services of a high-priced call girl.

The novel has all the elements you look for in bit of fiction that is designed to engage a reader.

GUILTY MINDS makes for the perfect summer read, a thrill ride that satisfies a craving for something light, entertaining, and well-written.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Glorious Heresies: A Book Review

There's prose and then there's the dense thicket of words that pricks like James Joyce. THE GLORIOUS HERESIES is more of the latter. But don't let the opening paragraphs put you off. Go on, read it again and again until the words make sense and you realize that Lisa McInerney can't help herself as she's an Irish storyteller and that's just how the sentences fall out of her head.

The novel is a tangle of narratives that are interconnected with cleverness that makes the reading an adventure. From Maureen who kills a shiftless intruder with a Holy Stone, to her son Jimmy the gangster who cleans up the mess, we next meet Tony Cusack the widowed drunk with six kids to feed, and soon thereafter it's Tony's son Ryan the drug dealer and the partner of the dead man, a prostitute who buys her drugs from Ryan. These disparate characters inhabit the poorest section of Cork where the death of the Celtic Tiger is keenly felt. Picture a novel set in the slums of an average American city like Cleveland, that is the sort of place that Ms. McInerney has chosen to present a group with nothing going for them and nothing to look forward to but more difficulty and hardship.

There is murder and a cover-up on one hand, and like ripples in a pond that cover-up touches on the entire cast of characters. Tony gets involved because he's the widowed father of six and desperate for any work that brings in a little money. Ryan is struggling to find his way, madly in love with his girlfriend but unable to build a solid relationship after surviving his dysfunctional father's regime. The cover-up leads to questions that threaten Jimmy, and if it sounds rather "In Bruges", this is a black comedy in that same vein.

The prose is light-hearted in its darkness, the situations devolving into near comedy with a hard edge. The horrors of the old Magdalene Laundries is touched upon by Maureen, who found herself pregnant as the system of incarceration was breaking down, but the resentment she harbours towards the Catholic Church is not unknown to those who have spoken to the women whose lives were destroyed. To understand Maureen's antipathy, you might want to read THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES to gain some insight into how the Church shaped modern Ireland, and women like Maureen.

To enter THE GLORIOUS HERESIES is to enter the world of those who typically end up dead or incarcerated, the denizens of the bottom of the social ladder. The author provides touches of humanity that make for fully realized people, rather than uni-dimensional images of the downtrodden, hopeless masses. As a reader, you may come to care about what happens to them, and so you keep on reading to a conclusion on a high note.

Lisa McInerney has long written a blog that focuses on the very sort of people she has used to populate her first novel. Her experiences writing from Cork show up in her first novel, a book populated by the very sort of characters she portrays in the blog. The note of hope on which the story closes might be a bit of wishful thinking, artistic license, or something that's been seen in the dismal estate housing that Americans would recognize as housing projects, with the same sets of social problems. After all the misery, however, it's a satisfying ending.

My great-grandmother's adage, about being grateful we weren't from Cork because that's where all the poor people are, could be some kind of warning about what you'll encounter as you read THE BLORIOUS HERESIES.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, more so after I got deeper into it than the opening pages. That dense thicket of words was off-putting at first, but the voice is unique and worth the struggle.