Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Bookshop At Water's End: A Book Review

Just as each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, so too are writers verbose in their own way. So many words in THE BOOKSHOP AT WATER'S END. So much description, so much inner dialogue and lengthy ponderings.

For some readers, this is the sort of thing they can get lost in, while the rest of us cut through the verbosity with a machete. The story at the heart of this novel centers on the relationship between two women who became BFFs over the course of three summers, one BFF's brother, and the other's daughter. They are all exploring life issues and going through a period of personal growth, hence the need for a lot of words. Yes, there is a well-developed tale in THE BOOKSHOP AT WATER'S END. The author just takes her time in telling it.

While this is not my preferred style, those who are fans of "lyrical prose" will find a narrative that keeps them engaged throughout. Bonny returns to a childhood summer home after a crisis, and calls in BFF Lainey to join her in a farewell to the house that Bonny plans to sell. Ah sure but the old ghosts of a long-ago summer return and the ladies are dealing with harsh memories of the night Lainey's mother went missing after a drunken spree.

Then there's daughter Piper, teen in search of herself, and Lainey's older brother who has long loved Bonny from afar.

They come together, they hash out their problems, the mystery of the mother's disappearance is revealed, and the strings are all neatly tied together in the conclusion.

For those who like a lot of prose in their summer reads, when the story is thin so the words are used to plump things up, this latest offering from Patti Callahan Henry will be welcome. But if you want your author to come to the point, you'd best find a different writer.

Review copy provided by Penguin Random House, with thanks as always.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Confusion Of Languages: A Book Review

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

That's the tag line that best fits this particular narrative.

Cassie Hugo is as structured as could be, a control freak whose military husband is deployed to Jordan. So aware of the dangers of radical Islam, she sees a Bin Laden in every Arabic face and threats around every corner.

She's annoying and unlikeable and if author Siobhan Fallon says it once she says it more than enough times. Cassie, being infertile, has an attitude about babies. I got it early on. No need to repeat.

Due to circumstances where you can't pick your friends because there's but a small pool of American embassy workers on hand, she tries to cozy up to Margaret Hugo.

Margaret is a stereotypical California girl, head full of clouds. You can get away with using stereotypes when you've won a few writing awards. But all those awards don't make for a likeable character either.

Cassie keeps her distance while Margaret rushes head-long into making nice with the natives. Being empty-headed, she's blissfully unaware of cultural differences and acts the role of ugly American, doing things her way in the assumption that she can bring people together through kindness. Kindness American style, which does not translate into Jordanian life. Hence, the confusion of languages.

The novel is told in first person by both Cassie and Margaret, so be on your toes as you read. Margaret's side of the story is revealed through her secret diary that Cassie discovers after Margaret goes missing, leaving her toddler in Cassie's care. Oddly enough, Margaret's journal is written just like a novel, with dialogue and everything.

As for Cassie, her narrative covers the time period from when Margaret dumps said toddler and she finds out what happened to Margaret, the chapters moving slowly through time as backstory is revealed and Cassie discovers some insight into herself. To use the military term, Margaret's good intentions result in a massive clusterfuck of trouble that descends on those she tried to help. The actions she takes drive the narrative and work to build the tension, so that you can almost forget how much you dislike all the characters and read on to see how the dust settles.

The story builds to a strong finish, with plenty of strong emotional elements. Some will love THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES and some will not get far once Cassie starts whinging about sloppy babies. Self-edit, skim, and get yourself to the meat of the story.

Review copy provided by Penguin Random House, thanks a million.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Before We Were Yours: A Book Review

Like THE ORPHAN TRAIN, author Lisa Wingate builds a novel from the bones of history and puts together a very compelling book.

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS presents an adoption scandal that blew up in the 1950's and juxtaposes it with a modern young lady under pressure to marry well, in keeping with her social position. Avery would much rather find out why the strange old lady at the nursing home was so obsessed with a bracelet that Avery was given by her grandmother than make wedding plans with her fiance.

Ms. Wingate creates a mystery for Avery, who sets out to uncover a family secret that might have remained hidden due to her grandmother's senility. Interwoven within this narrative is the tale told by Rill Foss, who is early shown to be the same old woman Avery knows as May.

Readers are given enough insight early on to understand much of the connection between May and Avery's grandmother, and the pleasure in reading the novel comes from following along as Avery discovers those same facts.

There is a great deal of heartstring tugging as Rill struggles to survive the ordeal of being kidnapped by the Tennessee Children's Home baby snatchers. Like the Catholic Church running the mother and baby homes in Ireland, there was a booming market for adoptable children during the 1930's through the 1950's. The same theme runs through BEFORE WE WERE YOURS, as Rill struggles to keep her siblings with her, only to watch them torn away in adoption.

We have some sexual tension, of course, between Avery and the grandson of the man who made it his life's work to find those lost siblings. Additional friction exists between the young lady and her mother, a dispute over proper place and future plans in a powerful, wealthy, politically prominent family. The fact that Avery's father is a Senator lends an added degree of tension because the possibility of scandal is the sort of thing that would put a quick halt to probing. Will there be such scandal, will it bring down the Senator, etc. etc., lends a little interest to Avery's less compelling narrative.

The story is well told and thoroughly enjoyable, right down to the happy ending that isn't overly saccharine.Things don't all work out in the end, like in real life.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy used here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

MacArthur's Spies: A Book Review

The smoky club, the sultry singer, the pretty hostesses flirting with the enemy---it's the makings of a noir thriller, but in MACARTHUR'S SPIES, it's not a film.

Peter Eisner brings to life a small group of determined patriots whose exploits in the Philippines during the Second World War are remarkable. The group includes ex-pats and Filipinos, all of them risking their lives for the sake of undermining the Japanese occupation.

To read of ordinary people placing themselves into great danger is a thrill, and the author does an excellent job of bringing forward the sort of tension that these ordinary people lived with every day, with the threat of death a daily experience. The cast of characters if certainly interesting, none more so than Claire Phillips. As a woman and an American trying to survive in enemy territory, she stepped up and acted with bold determination, using her ability to shade her past to create a new person who found ways to support the rebels and the American POWs.

The complexity of the operation makes for a complex read, and it is sometimes difficult to keep all the names straight, but the underlying current of fear is enough to propel a reader forward. This is a tale of resilience to be sure, with a touch of laughing in the face of death, and it all makes for a very compelling read.

Anyone who enjoys a good spy novel will thoroughly enjoy this journey into the inner workings of a large-scale plot to pave the way for liberation. As usual, I'm thanking Penguin Random House for the advance review copy.

Monday, April 17, 2017

You Were Here: A Book Review

Never start a novel with a dream, budding authors are told, but a dream opens YOU WERE HERE. But it's not just a dream, for the dream here is as much a character in the story as the protagonist Abby Walters.

Those budding authors are also told to kill their darlings, and that's a bit of advice that Gian Sardar should have taken, but I digress.

The novel starts out slow, slow, slow, and I was close to abandoning the thing as I waited for something to happen. Abby is wretchedly annoying, obsessed with death and dying to the point that you wish the manuscript had been edited a bit more tightly to cut out some of the constant repetition. We the readers get it, she's afraid of things to the point of nearly being crippled, always thinking she's about to get killed in some accident.


Don't give up on this one. In time, Abby will leave Los Angeles and her committment-phobic lover to attend her high school reunion, where she reconnects with the boy she once adored from afar. Turns out he's a police detective on the trail of a violent serial rapist. And while Abby is back in her former stomping grounds, she goes snooping around to uncover the meaning of a cryptic note she finds tucked into a ring box that once belonged to her grandmother.

Woven into Abby's narrative is the tale of a woman connected to the grandmother, a woman who is having an affair with a married man. That subplot is interesting in itself, and the tension that builds as the man plans to leave his wife, who has uncovered the illicit romance, will have a reader turning the pages to see what comes next.

That serial rapist is still on the loose in the present day, so there's tension building in that section of the narrative as well, enough to keep your eyes glued to the book. 

After a slow start through a tangled thicket of pretty prose that feels quite unnecessary the story gets down to business, and YOU WERE HERE proves to be an intriguing read. Just skip over all the darlings that the editor was unable to kill and you'll find a well-crafted novel for a weekend's entertainment.

As usual, it's all thanks to Penguin Random House.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Light We Lost: A Book Review

I can't do this anymore. I have given up at page 145.

What do we have but yet another young New Yorker examining the lint in her navel and imagining that it is fascinating for us all. The problems of a woman who falls madly in lust and thinks it's love is so small, so petty, that I cannot generate enough enthusiasm to continue.

As usual, the prose if lovely. The sentences are put together nicely, the voice comes through clearly.

It's the fecking story. It isn't strong enough to support an entire novel.

Sure there are those who enjoy a soap opera, or those who are twenty-something elitists in New York who believe their problems have deep relevance to the world. I am not one of them. This is not a book for me.

Sorry, Penguin Random House. You gave me the book for a review, but I can't finish it. I wouldn't inflict this on anyone I know because they like good books with substance. If you're wondering why book sales are down, well, you can start here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

There Your Heart Lies

So close to not finishing. Two chapters in. The strings of incomplete sentences. Maddening. Annoying. The chapter where the story turns from past to present. Unnecessary. Filler that failed to move the narrative. Where was the editor?

In the end, however, I was glad I stuck with THERE YOUR HEART LIES. Granted, the early going was rough, with the author's penchant for that stream-of-consciousness feel that you get from using incomplete sentences to paint the mood. But enough is enough, and at first the choppy structure was too much.

Once the story really began, however, the prose flowed more smoothly and the tale took on a more engaging tone.

The novel's protagonist is a woman of privilege who rebels against her family by joining the Lincoln Brigade to fight the fascists in Spain. Marian's background is remarkably Kennedy-esque, with her large Irish-American clan determined to become part of the well-heeled elite. Her brother is gay, while the Kennedys had a mentally handicapped daughter. He kills himself, in contrast to the Kennedy girl who was essentially killed by her parents when they had her lobotomized. There is much kowtowing to the Catholic clergy in Marian's world, and what better way to do the opposite than to become a socialist? Rather like young Kathleen Kennedy marrying a divorced Protestant British peer, yes?

Early on, the story switches to modern times when Marian is an old grandmother seeking to instill that same rebellious spirit in her slacker granddaughter. As it turns out, Marian has hidden her past. Facing death, she decides to reveal her secrets, but the secrets are revealed first to the reader and then repeated in abbreviated form to Amelia.

Marian the starry-eyed idealist meets the reality of overwhelming force as a nurse, but she also finds love and beauty in the quiet moments. While her comrades fight amongst themselves, socialists battling communists, she falls in love with a Spanish doctor whose family could beat out Marian's parents in the adoration of the Catholic clergy. She experiences life in the early years of Franco's brutal regime, when no one trusted anyone else and those who chaffed under the iron fist had to tread very carefully.

All the hardship never diminishes her spirit, but when she gains an opportunity to flee Spain, she grabs it, to return to the same country she fled as a young woman who believed in a cause. Her life almost comes full circle when she lands in nearly the same place she left, but without the extravagant financial support or the religion that she associates with oppression. Her naivete remains intact, making for a character that is almost comical. You might even feel sorry for her, for being so untouched by the common working folks with whom she never seems to mingle. The story is largely about privileged people playing at underprivilege, making the characters a little one-dimensional.

The novel is worth reading, after you've gotten past the early bits where Marian's new cause of protesting swan population control is given far too much space. The relationship that develops between Marian and Amelia is a key part of the story, and Mary Gordon does a fine job of showing the growth of understanding between the generations, along with an appreciation of the young for the life experiences of the old.

Somewhat of a fantasy, I suppose, but the prose was lovely once the sentence fragments smoothed out.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy.