Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Enchantress Of Numbers: A Book Review

History has forgotten so many women, and author Jennifer Chiaverini brings them back to life. In her newest work of historical fiction she presents the life of Ada Byron King, daughter of the poet Byron, a woman now considered the mother of computer coding.

ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS is well researched, and the nuggets of information that pop up in the narrative are never intrusive. Ms. Chiaverini paints a subtle picture of life at the end of the Georgian Era when Ada, daughter of a peer, was being raised by a mother who wished to create a rational, non-imaginative child.

Readers might be a bit skeptical about the early chapters, where Ada relates her infancy as if she was recalling incidents, but read on and the clunky opening fades away as the heart of the story is revealed. Through a difficult and most un-ordinary childhood, a woman with a penchant for complex mathematics arises, and much of the middle section revolves around her efforts to pursue advanced studies while the world expects her to take her rightful place as wife and mother.

A woman's mind was considered a delicate vessel in those days, and too much study was thought to be physically debilitating. It is just one of many issues that Ada had to beat back with guile and clever turns of phrases to reach her goals.

Ada struggles, she perseveres, and in the end she trimphs, although you might have a feeling that her marriage was not so happy as the author depicts it. This is fiction, however, and Ada faces more than enough difficulties to drive the narrative to a positive conclusion. The opening chapters that cover her mother's miserable union with Lord Byron are more than enough dysfunction for one book.

You will most likely have an urge to study Byron's poetry after reading ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS, to see Ada through her father's eyes and gain a little insight into his view of his failed marriage and the mother of his only legitimate child. The novel focuses largely on Ada's mother's images, and her determination to keep Ada from every becoming like her father.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this one.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

If You Can't Trust A Pastor

Abingdon Press expects their authors will not tell a lie when asked if the content being submitted is all original.

When the author being queried is a man of the cloth, well, you'd have to take him at his word. He knows all about that whole 'false witness' business that appears so prominently in the Bible. And it wasn't just the minister's word, but the signed contract that included a clause about original content.

They don't want to deal with plagiarism at Abingdon Press.

So much for trusting a pastor.
Thou shalt not bear false witness, or something like that

Rev. Bill Shillady was, and may still be, pastor to a flock that includes Hillary Rodham Clinton. He tended to her spiritual needs while she was running for office, a time of great stress and many moments of doubt. It was the garden at Gethsemane, you'd imagine, what with the personal attacks on top of a determination to reach the top of the political heap. Who wouldn't welcome some wise words from God?

After the election, the reverend compiled all those wise words he had sent along to Mrs. Clinton over the course of her campaign, turning it into a book of daily devotions. He sold the work to Abingdon Press, which handed over the usual boilerplate contract that included that pesky clause about original material.

Books relating to current events have a very brief moment to shine, and Rev. Shillady pushed his work through to meet that glowing opportunity. He could have done with a few more weeks, to review a few more times what was his original material and what was being quoted from other sources who should have been credited, but were not.

As it turns out, there were quite a few passages that Rev. Shillady had not composed all by himself. In a work of non-fiction, that's not a bad thing, but it's up to the author to acknowledge the source of the non-original pieces.

The first instance was discovered and corrected, with the author of the snippet granting Abingdon Press the right to use his words.

One slip does not a pulping make, but it turns out that more than one deep thought and prayer was lifted from other sources.

Rev. Shillady told Abingdon Press that STRONG FOR A MOMENT LIKE THIS met their requirements, but the book did not. The press is on the hook for the cost of publishing, printing, and then pulping every copy. They pulled the book from shelves and there does not seem to be much interest in re-issuing a corrected version.

The shining moment has passed. Mrs. Clinton is about to go off on a book tour to promote her own version of events during the failed campaign, and there won't be any interest in the devotionals that guided her along the way once she starts pointing fingers of blame.

The publisher trusted the pastor and he let them down. In order to save money on editing, the publisher relied on the author to check and verify. An expensive lesson, to be sure, but isn't all publicity good publicity? Who ever heard of Abingdon Press before this, and how many potential book buyers will take a look at the website to see if there's anything else that might be of interest to buyers in search of religious themes?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Future She Left Behind: A Book Review

Authors are advised to "blow something up" in the first five pages of a novel, to grab a reader's attention. Marin Thomas does exactly that in THE FUTURE SHE LEFT BEHIND, blowing up protagonist Katelyn Chandler's comfortable life by introducing a divorce decree that ends twenty years of marriage.

Katelyn commences on a journey of personal discovery as a way to recover from the shock, with her mother-in-law along for the ride. Their relationship is stereotypical, but when you want light reading, it's not a flaw.

Back home in small town Texas, our heroine reconnects with her mother who's been largely ignored while Katelyn was doing the dutiful mammy thing and being what she thought was a good wife. She contends with some old feelings for the town bad boy who was once her darling, back before she set off for the big wide world to pursue her artistic talents.

There's the usual twining and twisting of personal interaction, romance blossoming all around, while Katelyn and Jackson dance around their past with eyes on a potential future. Sexual tension abounds, and let's not forget Katelyn's mother-in-law softening her hard edges as she develops an affection for the local widower.

Lots of touchy feelies to be had in this novel that moves along at a nice pace, though it does drag a bit through the middle. A large chunk of prose is taken up to show his difficulties in dealing with his alcoholism and recovery that could have been edited a bit for length.

All in all, THE FUTURE SHE LEFT BEHIND is perfect for a weekend read when you want to escape from the madness of the real world and go to a place where everyone is happy in the end. We need more of that than ever these days.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Address: A Book Review

Author Fiona Davis moves her attention from the Barbizon to the Dakota in THE ADDRESS, an intriguing tale that once again intertwines narratives from the past and present.

Her modern day (somewhat, as we're in the 1980s here) protagonist is a recovering alcoholic interior decorator who is distantly related to an architect involved in creating the Dakota in New York City. The reader's guide to the past is a British emigre who has come to America to manage the brand new apartment building that the owners hope will become THE address of the upper echelon of society.

Bailey Camden is seeking a fresh start by remodeling her rich cousin's flat, and finds a sympathetic ear in the building's superintendent who is also off the drink. They end up discovering some mysterious trunks stowed away in the depths of the Dakota, and that starts Bailey on a quest to find out how exactly she's related to Theo Camden the architect who was murdered by the Dakota's original lady manager.

Sara Smythe, the illegitimate daughter of nobility, finds a fresh start as the lady manager of the Dakota, but there's that handsome architect Theo Camden hovering around the fringes, shooting off sparks of sexual attraction. Except he's married with children, wouldn't you know. Well, a girl can't resist, can she, and before long she's up the stick.

Scandal doesn't begin to describe her predicament in the 1880's.

The story of Sara is revealed to the reader as Bailey uncovers bits and pieces of that narrative, the whole puzzle coming together with some well-crafted tension.

Then Ms. Davis creates an ending reminiscent of her earlier work, in which things happen that don't fit what's been set up because she wanted a particular ending. The cruelty of the antagonist comes out of the blue due to a general lack of clues sprinkled in earlier, even though she tries to lay them out at the end.

THE ADDRESS is an enjoyable read, in general, and worth the time for fans of historical fiction who enjoy the use of factual details to add depth to a novel.

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

STILL LIFE: A Book Review

Still LifeStill Life by Sean Gleason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sean Gleason demonstrates a rare ability to write fiction that reflects our ordinary, very real, lives. Reading STILL LIFE is like sitting in Louisa Patch's farmhouse, experiencing the highs and lows with her as she struggles to find success in the thoroughbred industry...and show her family that they wrong about her career choice.

Between caring for her special needs daughter and running a horse farm, the last thing she needs is another problem, but here comes her older sister with a new husband in tow. Louisa sees through him at once, and sets out to split the pair before her sister gets burned.

At the same time, she's working hard at building a relationship with the farm's owner, while an old flame is working twice as hard to build a relationship with her. She can't keep Cecil out of her life when she needs an ally to help her prove that she's right about the brother-in-law, who has managed to turn her family against her. The next thing she knows, she's in a racehorse syndicate with a mysterious backer who's hiding in plain sight.

The novel is deliciously complex, the narrative so compelling that you can't stop reading. Perfect for a weekend read when you need a few laughs and a few tears.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 21, 2017

Commercials As Educational Tools

You've seen the advert, most likely, and chuckled over the concept. What sort of robber would take a taxi away from the scene of the crime? So clueless, those criminals.

As it turns out, the premise behind Geico's getaway car ad has a ring of truth to it, and if a pair of burglars had taken the time to watch and learn, they might not now be sitting behind bars.

Anthony Wickliffe and his mate Darvell White thought they could find some serviceable pieces in an area of Chicago that is currently gentrifying. The West Town neighborhood is popular with the young millenials, who may not have much money but they are fond of electronics, large televisions, and the latest smartphones.

Also, they are at work all day earning money to pay for those luxuries, so no one is home, right? All the neighbors are away as well, block after block of recent graduates who had the sense to get professional degrees in things like accounting or finance.

So off they go to the streets where people have objects worth stealing. They break a few back doors, grab what they can, and tuck the goods in their little local hideaway for later retrieval. If you're going to steal small things, you have to steal in quantity, and that takes multiple entries. Even the thickest of criminals could see that multiple door smashings in a short period of time could cause alarm.

And then too, someone might have an actual alarm and you'd want to be light on your feet to escape before the police come. You can't run like the wind with a 60 inch flat screen on your back.

Once the goods have been got, however, a thief has to transport them home so the items can be put up for sale at the nearest flea market, or fencing operation, or maybe even Ebay. You wouldn't want to use your own car for such an operation because what if your vehicle is spotted on some surveillance camera? You never know who has cameras mounted, so it's best to travel in disguise.

What better disguise than a taxi?

The driver comes to you, wherever you are, and takes you to where you want to go. Taxis are everywhere, nondescript, and the cops could never connect you to the scene of the crime.

If only Mr. Wickliffe and Mr. White had paid closer attention to the Geico ad. Their clever business fell apart when the police were in the area investigating an earlier break-in. The authorities were watching a live shot on a security camera when they saw the gentlemen retrieving the stolen goods in the alley. The authorities watched them get into a cab and spirit the items away.

Colleagues of the viewing party easily apprehended the pair, in the cab, with the goods.

So it will be off to prison for the two, who should have paid closer attention to the Geico commercial and skipped the whole 'call a taxi' portion of their devious plan. Did they have no friends willing to loan them a car?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Spoonbenders: A Book Review

The premise is brilliant. The execution, however, is not.

This could have been a contender, if only an editor had taken a red pencil to the rambling segments that did nothing to advance the narrative. So much of the early parts had me falling asleep, only to find that things picked up considerably around page 130. Alas, the narrative wound its way back through the treacle and I have given up.

There is much to like about the story, with a tale of grifters and psychically gifted, mixed in with loan sharks and mob bosses and CIA operatives. Wit and humour can be found, but it's just too much work to find the jewels and I lack the time, and patience, to continue.

A little less dwelling on the angst of hopelessness felt by those at the bottom of the economic rung would have helped. Not all the characters in this novel are interesting, and there's no need to give them all equal time. The excessive amount of back story had me skimming in search of substance, and as I turned the pages I grew more disappointed because I wanted to like the story. The prose is well written. It's just that there's far too much of it.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to delve into a little fantasy. This one just isn't for me, so.

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.

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.