Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Thing About Love: A Book Review

A benefit of participating in Penguin Random House's First To Read programme is the opportunity to sample genres I don't ordinarily read. THE THING ABOUT LOVE is such an experience as I dip my literary toe into romantic waters.

Didn't drown, either.

The romance centers on a pair of FBI agents who happen to be hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, ad infinitum. We're talking 'beautiful people' here. They meet, signals get crossed, and when they are reunited as partners the sparks of frenemy-ness fly. So much heat between these hotties, and can Julie James use the word hot too often for her readers? Sweet Jaysus it's the most used word in the book after 'the'.

Sexual tension builds as they work undercover on a corruption case, and there is just enough detail to make the work situation interesting to those not overly concerned with character heat index. As the novel progresses there is hot sex and more hot sex, Jessica and John face a split in the relationship due to work-related matters, but then we have to have a happy ending and the author ties it all up quite neatly.

I haven't discovered a new love for romance, but if this is your cup of tea, you'll be well entertained. The novel is quite accessible, easy to read, and perfect for a weekend when you want to escape from reality. Perhaps to dream of how hot sex would be if your husband was the slightest bit more fit, to say nothing of US Army Ranger cut. It's all about the dreaming, isn't it, in romance novels?

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Barrowfields: A Book Review

Where are we going, you'll be asking Phillip Lewis. Where are you taking your readers on this meandering journey through an isolated backwater?

THE BARROWFIELDS is a coming of age tale, relating the awakening of Henry Aster who lives in a bizarre setting that feels a bit Flannery O'Connor-like. There is humour in Mr. Lewis' telling, but a bit of a chuckle is not enough to keep a reader enthralled. The Aster family is dysfunctional in a Southern Gothic sort of way, the father a hard-drinking lawyer with a burning desire to be a writer. Henry is the product of a would-be novelist's attempt to create a writer in his son, and there are more than enough references to obscure literary classics to make the average reader feel as if he or she has fallen into a lecture.

We are dragged into MFA-land as the story progresses, with Henry the university student discussing the word count on various fiction genres, and you the reader realize that Mr. Lewis is perhaps more of a short-story writer than a novelist. His prose is extremely pretty, but his ability to tell a coherent story is not fully developed. His attention to his personal craft is fluff that fills space but does not move the narrative.

The novel wanders in a way that had me skimming, in search of conflict or a plot point to cling to. The novel's premise is intriguing, but Henry gazes deeply into his navel as he ponders his failure to look after his younger sister as promised after his father leaves the family. Like so many recent works of fiction, the protagonist does not speak to the wider world or the human condition, but focuses quite firmly on a single individual with middle class problems.

Pretty prose does not a novel make. This one is worth a glance for the attractive sentences, but is difficult to finish because there isn't much substance behind the facade.

The review copy was provided by Penguin Random House. Thank you.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Weight Of This World: A Book Review

Something to find at the local library for a test drive
On the plus side, the characters in David Joy's new novel are not New Yorkers filled with angst. Instead, THE WEIGHT OF THIS WORLD delves into a different dysfunctional sphere, that of the Appalachians.

The cast of characters fit the required stereotypes of hopeless losers, so much so that you feel as if they lack dimension. Thad Broom joins the army because that's what poor men in North Carolina's mountains do, in the eyes of those who don't actually know anyone who signed up. For those unfamiliar with the typical soldier boy, it won't be an issue and the novel is probably more enjoyable. Less disbelief to suspend.

Thad's best mate Aiden, adrift in the world, joins him on a meth-fueled bender but you don't really gain any insight into why the men have turned to drugs. Granted, Thad has to take something to self-medicate because he was injured and the Veterans Administration does nothing to help the injured vets, so there's a "ripped from the headlines" excuse. What's left? The usual residue of domestic violence, rape and slut-shaming, that sort of thing. No depth, just reasons you'd find in reading scholarly studies into such matters.

How much further can the dysfunction in this novel go? Aiden is having it off with Thad's mother. We're deep in the mentally deranged woods here, but the author is painting a picture and it all fits, if only because intellectuals tell us that starting at Point A brings you to Point B.

The action is profoundly violent, as one would expect in the world of drugs and drug selling and nothing-to-lose. This book is not for everyone, to be sure. And yet the prose is so pretty that you can't help but read, although not necessarily for the narrative.

I skimmed a great deal, gliding over the surface of a story that did not quite pull me in because too much did not ring true. Events happened in a way that followed the formula, or maybe I'm just reading too much these days and I tend to analyze too much.

In a way I enjoyed the book because the author writes so well, and then again I did not care for it much at all.

I'm quite on the fence with this one, debating the worth of the words as opposed to the content.

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.