Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Milkman

Milkman by Anna Burns
Graywolf Press: 12/04/18
eBook review copy; 360 pages
ISBN-13: 9781644450000


Milkman by Anna Burns is the recommended winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

The Milkman is set in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland in a city under siege during the "troubles." The story is told over several months through and narrated by an 18 year-old unnamed character. She is trying to avoid the unwanted sexual attention and intimidation of a paramilitary figure known as the Milkman. She is trying to avoid him, but she is already standing out due to her reading while walking and taking a French night class. All she wants is to keep on with her quiet life, reading while walking, running, and seeing her maybe-boyfriend. Now the Milkman's unwanted attention has made her the target of rumor and gossip and has, perhaps, also made her a target of surveillance.

Burns does an excellent job setting the novel in a specific place and during a specific time. She also excels at capturing the attitudes of the people living during the time of the troubles and the oppression and rules they follow in order to go on and try to lead ordinary lives. There are poetic moments buried in the rather dense prose which consists of some of the narrator's ordinary activities but mostly covers her inner, introspective thoughts and musings. There is a lot of repetition and examination of a situation from different angles.
 
This was a challenging read for me, and not entirely enjoyable. Part of the challenge is the lack of names, any names. Instead of names you have middle sister, older sister, third sister, maybe-boyfriend, third brother-in-law, nuclear-boy, Somebody McSomebody, the wee ones, longest friend from primary school, etc., etc..  As with other reviewers, the many many times these characterization-names were repeated began to grate after so many times. I'm glad I read it, but it was a chore to finish the novel.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Hazards of Time Travel

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates
Harper Collins: 11/27/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062319593


Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates is a recommended dystopian novel about a totalitarian regime where being sent back in time is a punishment.

Adriane Strohl is named valedictorian of her high school class, even after others tried to tell her that it is better to not stand out in the current political environment. When she practices her speech, which consists of questions, she is arrested, charged with Treason and Questioning of Authority, and punished by being sent to college. The college she is sent to is in Wainscotia, Wisconsin, and the time is in 1959, eighty years in the past. She is given a new name, Mary Ellen Enright, and has a chip implanted in her brain to ensure her cooperation and loss of past memories. The opening of the novel lists the rules and constraints Adriane is under for the time she is sentenced for rehabilitation. Obviously she should know that it could be dangerous when she becomes obsessed with and tries to talk to Dr. Ira Wolfman, a psychology professor. She is sure that he has also been sentenced to exile in 1959 Wainscotia.

Oates has created an interesting dystopian world, but, in my opinion, it certainly reads like a Young Adult novel and is not as well-imagined or well-developed as other adult dystopian novels out there. It falls a bit short of making the political statement that Oates' desires. Adriane's paranoia and struggle to try to remember who she was before feels realistic, as does her inability to fit into 1959. In many ways it feels like this novel was rushed to publication as a political statement. It might have had a chance to make a bigger impact if more time was spent making it a better, more complete statement. There is one part which occurs later in the novel that was startling and elevated the novel above the ordinary - a bit - which is the basis for my three stars. The conclusion is enigmatic, in relationship to the information the reader has about Adriane's punishment.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Harper Collins.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

River Bodies

River Bodies by Karen Katchur
Thomas & Mercer: 11/1/18
eBook review copy; 290 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503902398 


River Bodies by Karen Katchur is a so-so novel about relationships rather than a murder mystery. It is not a thriller.

Becca Kingsley lives across the Delaware River from where she grew up in Portland, Pennsylvania and where her estranged father still lives. After his constant cheating on her mom, his decision to send her away to boarding school, and her parents' divorce, she hasn't seen him for years. Now she is a veterinary surgeon on the New Jersey side of the river where she lives with her beloved dog Romy and her cheating boyfriend, Matt. Occasionally she sees a relative watching her from the Pennsylvania side when she is out for a run with Romy. When she learns from her mom that her father is dying and Matt cheats on her, again, she takes off back across the river to see her father who is being taken care of by his current girlfriend.

At the same time a body is found downstream, shot and gutted, like a deer. The body resembles a case her father had twenty years ago, when he was the police chief. It seems that both cases may be tied to the local biker gang, the Scions. When her high school boyfriend, Parker Reed, shows up as the Pennsylvania State Police lead detective on the murder case, she begins to rekindle her feelings for him. But Becca has more clues to the answers to solve both cases than she is admitting.
 
The technical quality of the writing is good, so I have no qualms with that. The plot, however, is another story. The narrative alternates between what happens to Becca in the present and what happened in her past. This is not a murder mystery. You know the guilty party immediately and you pretty much know who was guilty twenty years ago. There is no motive given, but it's not pertinent to the novel. What it is, however, is a story about lying, cheating men and the women who put up with them until someone else arrives to save the day.

I guess now is the time to admit that I didn't care for Becca and had little patience for her. I simple never connected to Becca and felt very little compulsion to finish the story, other than a commitment to read and review it. Becca needed some introspection and backbone. After all the flashbacks to her cheating father, she should have dumped Matt, no matter how good looking he was (seriously?) the first time he cheated. There is no need to go on; 1 star for the book, 1 for decent writing. Read this only if you like some lite-mystery around a sort-of romance novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer.

Night of Miracles

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg
Penguin Random House: 11/13/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525509509 


Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg is a very highly recommended continuation of the feel-good narrative found in Berg's previous novel, The Story of Arthur Truluv, set in Mason, Missouri, a small town of five thousand people.

Maddy and Nola, Arthur’s “adopted” daughter and granddaughter, often stop in to see Lucille Howard in Mason. Lucille is continuing to teach her popular baking classes out of her home (which used to be Arthur's and is now owned by Maddy).  Lucille is so busy with her classes that she hires an assistant, Iris Winters. Iris is new to Mason and is trying to move on from her divorce and make a life for herself. Iris lives in the same apartment building as Tiny Dawson and the two become friends. Tiny has a crush on waitress Monica Mayhew, who he wants to ask out but is too afraid to follow through. Monica, unknown to Tiny, feels the same way as him. At the same time, Abby Summers, a neighbor to Lucille, has been recently diagnosed with cancer. Abby and her husband, Jason, ask Lucille if she can watch their son, Lincoln, while she undergoes chemo.

Berg continues the wonderfully written, simple, yet charming story found in Arthur Truluv of how people can help each other through their friendship, compassion, and emotional support. This is truly another story for fans of Fannie Flagg. It has the same feel-good small town feeling to it that often are found in her novels, although it is a simpler story with less depth than some of Flagg's novels, it is overwhelmingly a pleasant tale for the heart during vicious, turbulent times. There are not any shocking surprises - it is not that kind of story. While there are some harsh and challenging things that happen, we know, again, that the characters are going to get through it because it is that kind of story. And, you know, sometimes that is what you need.

It is true that Berg touches on some controversial topics but chooses to not make them hot-button topics and keeps the overall tone pleasant leading to an expected, fitting ending. This is a novel that is good for the heart. It is not packed full of the real-life drama and emotional conflicts that abound today, but it is a novel that is full of compassion and kindness toward others. Sometimes you need a novel like this - beautifully written and heart-warming.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition
by Jon L. Dunn, Jonathan Alderfer
National Geographic Society: 9/12/17
review copy; 592 pages
ISBN-13: 9781426218354

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition, by Jon L. Dunn, Jonathan Alderfer is a very highly recommended fully revised edition of the best-selling North American bird field guide. It is perfect for those just beginning to use a field guide as well as advanced birders. The guide is organized to match the new 2016 American Ornithological Society taxonomy and nomenclature classification system. The 7th edition includes 37 new species for a total of 1,023 species; 16 new pages allow for 250 fresh illustrations; 80 new maps; and 350 map revisions.

National Geographic field guides are the most frequently updated guides around which makes them the most up-to-date guides available. All the art work included was carefully selected and updated where needed. I absolutely loved the detailed illustrations that are hand-painted and represent the most distinctive plumages likely to be encountered in the field. Although I have an irrational love of the photos in an unnamed field guide, I can fully support the much superior choice made by National Geographic guides to use illustrations that do a superior job to accurately depict the various birds for identification purposes.

There is a short quick-find index on the front cover fly-leaf and, with the cover flap open, a visual index of bird families. The visual index continues on the flap of the open back cover. You will find a short table of contents at the front and a complete index in the back. At the start of each family group is an introduction. The information on each bird includes the name and the scientific name; the description and distinctive marks are covered, including juvenile markings, winter plumage, differences between breeding plumage, and males and females; the voice, if pertinent, is described; and the range maps illustrate the range, with the range map symbols explained on the back cover flap. There is also an accidentals/extinct species section at the back.

Back to the illustrations, though, which are the stars, in my opinion, of the National Geographic guides. The left page on the guide is informational, including the range maps, and the right page features the illustrations. The illustrations show the most common identifiable markings of each bird and include the birds in flight whenever that would help with identification.

When my children were young, I always had a wide variety of field guides available for them to use, including birds, plants, trees, animals, etc. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America would be an excellent addition to any home with children, to help instill that love of birding, as well as for the seasoned birder. There is also a National Geographic Birding App  available (based on a previous edition of the field guide) that can help with identification (especially songs), that is a great companion to the updated 7th edition Field Guide. (Bonus: a great field guide doesn't require a charge to use it over long periods of time.)

Jon Dunn, a leading expert on North American birds, was the chief editor and consultant for the first five editions of the National Geographic Field Guides to the Birds of North America, and co-authored the sixth and seventh editions, which gives the guides a consistency. Jonathan Alderfer has been the art consultant and principal general consultant of the field guides since the third edition. He is a principal author and artist of all recent National Geographic birding books, and his name has been on the cover with Dunn’s as co-authors since the Fifth Edition. (I enjoyed watching a video of Alderfer illustrating harlequin ducks online.) 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this guide from
National Geographic Society for review purposes at TLC Book Tours


 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Love and Invention

Love and Invention by Benjamin Constable
Editions du Délirium; 10/13/18
paperback; 323 pages
ISBN-13: 9791091633093

Love and Invention by Benjamin Constable is a highly recommended novel about finding your way in a place you don't belong.

Sixteen-year old Maleck moved to the village of Saint Jean two months ago and would like to run away - back to Paris where he had friends who enjoyed making films as much as he does. Now Maleck's plans to escape have been foiled by the post lady, who inadvertently hit his bike. She also, surprisingly, delivered a letter to him - a letter from his grandfather that was sent ten years ago. Ten years ago, in 2003, his grandfather Abbas Ibn Firnas, 73 years-old, disappeared from the village. According to Yvette, an 83 year-old widow, Abbas flew away.

Maleck, who drops out of high school to avoid the bullying he receives there, is originally encouraged by his mother to spend more time with Yvette, who knew his grandfather. During their visits she often confuses him with his grandfather, but he also learns more about his grandfather's life as an inventor and philosopher. She also teaches him how to dance and lets him know that his grandfather, too, was an outsider in the village. As Maleck learns more about him, he decides to make a film about his grandfather's life.

The novel opens with Maleck imprisoned, where he is encouraged to express himself by writing this book. Chapters alternate between the lives of Abbas (starting in 1937) and Maleck's life leading up to what put him in prison. There are also occasionally brief interludes - short chapters referencing the writing of the book. The chapters featuring Abbas have the feel of historical fiction while the present day chapters featuring Maleck feel like a coming-of-age novel. Maleck's chapters will anger and frustrate you as he deals with the bullies found in Saint Jean while dreaming of becoming a film maker and rising above, flying away, from the mundane limiting existence in his small town. Maleck drops many references to films in his chapters, as a budding film maker would be prone to do.

Constable does an exquisite job utilizing his beautiful, poetic prose to weave both narratives together into a complex, complete story. At the back of the novel are two source guides, one to the origination of the quotes used by one character and one for Maleck's film references. Both Abbas and Maleck are well-developed characters. With them Constable has created complete portraits of complex individuals and the choices, good and bad, that they made in their lives.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Benjamin Constable and Editions du Délirium.

Friday, November 2, 2018

We Were Mothers

We Were Mothers by Katie Sise
Amazon Publishing: 10/1/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503903616

We Were Mothers by Katie Sise is a so-so soap opera of a novel full of secrets.

The novel is set in an upscale suburban neighborhood and the story unfolds through the points-of-view of four characters. Cora is the mother of two year old twins and understandably tired while trying her best. She finds a dairy of the neighbor's college-aged daughter, Mira, claiming that Cora's husband kissed Mira after a baby sitting job.  Laurel is the neighbor, mother of Mira, and has secrets of her own. When Mira disappears, she is frantic. Jade is a friend of Cora. Her husband wants them to have a baby. Sarah is the mother of Cora and is still mourning her deceased daughter Maggie.

The narrative unfolds over the course of one weekend when events trigger a chain of circumstances that begin to slowly expose more and more secrets. Every chapter exposes a new secret and reveals a tangled mess of new information. All the women are distraught victims and all the men are scoundrels in this over-the-top melodramatic story. All the improbable twists affecting every character during this one weekend are farfetched and left me shaking my head.

If you enjoy scandalous melodramatic novels where everyone has a trunk full of secrets and can suspend disbelief when everything is exposed and hits the fan all at once AND don't mind that all the women are victims and the men villains, then by all means pick this novel up. Or if you want to read something mindless and fluffy with a flimsy soap opera plot full of caricatures without distinct voices or character development, then give it a try. There is, ostensibly, a message about empowerment for women at the end, but it arrived way-too-late to the plot. At least one character should have had the enlightenment to be true to herself long before this weekend happened.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher.