Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles

Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles by Anne Tyler
Penguin Random House: 5/29/18
eBook review copy; 24 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525565079

Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles by Anne Tyler is a very highly recommended re-released short story about a faith healer.
Susanna is an ordinary woman whose gift to heal people by touching them is discovered when she was seventeen.  As word of her God-given power to heal spreads, the gift her touch seems to bestow on some people also becomes a burden she has to bear. This is a wonderful short story!

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

Calypso

Calypso by David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company: 5/29/18
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316392389

Calypso by David Sedaris is a very highly recommended collection of 21 darkly humorous, yet touching, essays. This may be the best book by Sedaris yet.

David Sedaris has always had a keen eye for details and the absurd while observing the world with a cynical, but honest, eye. In these stories he focuses more on mortality and death, while simultaneously showing the love and devotion he has for Hugh and his family. The discussions between David and his sisters are both hilarious and insightful. While I can generally mention some topics covered in the essays, Sedaris smoothly segues from one topic to another. This is a memorable collection

Contents:
Company Man: One of perks to middle age is that, "with luck, you'll acquire a guest room."
Now We Are Five: How David and his siblings are handling the suicide of their youngest sister, Tiffany. Also buying a beach house he and Hugh named the Sea Section.
Little Guy: Reflections on being a short man. "I’m not one of those short men who feels he got shafted."
Stepping Out: David discusses his Fitbit obsession.
A House Divided: Reflections on class, and  Tiffany embracing poverty as an accomplishment.
The Perfect Fit: "I’m not sure how it is in small families, but in large ones relationships tend to shift over time. You might be best friends with one brother or sister, then two years later it might be someone else. Then it’s likely to change again, and again after that." And shopping with his sisters.
Leviathan: Sedaris contemplates how people become crazy in two ways: animals and diet, and he discusses feeding the wild turtles near their beach house. 
Your English Is So Good: Using a language instruction course doesn't necessarily help you with context or commonly used phrases. 
Calypso: America and the spread of information through TV news, along with pictures in wood grain and health concerns, including his desire to feed his tumor to a turtle.
A Modest Proposal: Gay marriage and proposing to Hugh.
The Silent Treatment: His father's inability to have meaningful discussions and growing up with him.
Untamed: A wild fox they named Carol.
The One(s) Who Got Away: David asks Hugh about previous partners.
Sorry: "Whenever I doubt the wisdom of buying a beach house, all I have to do is play a round of Sorry! and it all seems worth it."
Boo-Hooey: Sedaris can’t stand people talking about ghosts, but he does believe they can visit you in your dreams. "Who are you hanging out with, for God’s sake?" someone might ask. "Camp counselors?"
A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately: A self-explanatory list.
Why Aren’t You Laughing?: Sedaris discusses his mother's alcoholism.
I’m Still Standing: Having embarrassing accidents in public on airplanes.
The Spirit World: Amy and a psychic
And While You’re Up There, Check on My Prostate: A discussion of what angry drivers yell at other drivers.
The Comey Memo: Jim Comey was staying at an area beach house and their father's declining abilities.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
via Netgalley.

Late-K Lunacy

Late-K Lunacy by Ted Bernard
Petra Books: 4/14/18
eBook review copy; 428 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781927032831

Late-K Lunacy by Ted Bernard was a did not finish for me. I very rarely stop reading a book, so that alone speaks volumes. While the opening is set in a dystopian future, this ecology-based fictional novel is set in the present and focusing on a professor encouraging a group of student to consider the damaging effects of climate change. There is also fracking starting in the local woods. I tried to keep reading it several times until I finally gave up.

It was a chore to read right from the start due to the overabundance of descriptions and a preachy-lecturing tone to the narrative - all to the detriment of the plot. Everything is over-described, even minor characters. Early on I was muttering to myself, "Just get on with the story." I can accept lecturing me when you also provide me with a compelling set of main characters in a well-paced plot. Then throw in some suspense and intrigue. Develop those compelling characters and establish more of the setting along the way.

What didn't work: immediately lecturing the reader about your environmental concerns; setting the novel in an almost utopian small Ohio college town and providing all the history of this fictitious campus; declaring a love for Millennials making everyone who is not one or all pro-Millennial bad;  making the "bad" guys all stereotypical caricatures, either in descriptions of them (they are never looking good, or even okay) or in their speech patterns; making fun of areas of the country that you consider less intellectually developed than you.... I could go on but the gest of my point is that this reader gave up on Late-K Lunacy pretty early on because the writing wasn't worth the effort. (And it's not that I innately dislike environmental issues, college towns, and young adults - I live in a university town, am environmentally conscious, and have much-appreciated Millennials working for me.) Messages in novels are fine; almost all novels have some message in the plot, but make sure the actual quality of the writing can carry your message-laden plot.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon
HarperCollins: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 144 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062834621

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon is a very highly recommended collection of seven short essays. It is a sheer pleasure to reads these essays all thematically linked to fatherhood. There are poignant, funny, contemplative, and universal moments in this short collection that will leave a lasting impression on the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole collection.

Contents include:
The Opposite of Writing:  Chabon, father of four, contemplates the advice given to him by a successful writer when he was young. The man told him to not have children if he wants to write great books.
Little Man: A wonderful piece about taking his youngest son, Abraham Chabon, to fashion week in Paris. Abe is a young man who just loves clothes and wants to do something in fashion.
Adventures in Euphemism: Reflections on editing out offensive words and replacing them with a substitute word when reading a story to his children - something many parents have struggled with.
The Bubble People: While we may refer to living in certain areas as living in a bubble, the truth be told, we are all living in a bubble - for exactly one.
Against Dickitude: Thoughts about teaching his son to not be a jerk to girls.
The Old Ball Game: Chabon muses about when he tried to talk his son out of playing baseball, and why he did so, even though he personally loves the game.
Be Cool or Be Cast Out: Thoughts about the stress a group of socially repressive twelve-year junior high students can inflict on each other.
Pops: Chabon shares a memory about his own father.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Little Disasters

Little Disasters by Randall Klein
Penguin Random House; 5/22/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735221680

Little Disasters by Randall Klein is a recommended debut novel that follows two couples (via the narration of the men) during one disastrous year.

Two men, Michael and Paul meet in 2009 at the Brooklyn hospital where their partners, Rebecca and Jenny, are in the delivery room. Michael is an artist and furniture maker and his wife Rebecca is a cookie entrepreneur. Paul is an actor and paralegal and his partner Jenny is a writer. Michael and Rebecca take home their son while Paul and Jenny mourn the death of their son. Paul later calls Michael to have him transform the nursery to an office for Jenny. He also invites the two over for dinner, which is a disaster. Michael accepts the job, which also marks the start of his affair with Jenny.

At the same time, chapters cover a year in the future when an unnamed disaster hits NYC. The opening chapter shows Michael is at the Cloisters in the northernmost tip of Manhattan, waiting for Jenny, who stands him up. Paul is trapped in a subway tunnel under the east river. Some disaster happened which has stopped mass transit, traffic, and electricity, leaving many people stranded during their morning commute who now must find a way home during one of the hottest days of the year.

The writing is excellent, perceptive, and observant with an acute eye for detail. The plot has some built in tension because of the way the book is structure covering a year in the lives of these characters. Basically there are two timelines and our two narrators are in both timelines. They meet in 2009. Events during this starting point in the timeline lead up to the current day, July 19, 2010. July 19th marks some unknown disaster in NYC, sending both men on a long, hot trek home. The novel starts on July 19th in 2010, and then jumps back to 2009. At this point, you have to pay attention to the opening dates and who is talking, especially at the beginning, because the chapters alternate between the two first person narrators in both timelines. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear who is narrating and how the two stories are tied together.

Where I found the novel to be lacking is in the characters and the plot. While both male character are developed and clearly are deeply flawed men, the women are not well developed characters at all and come across as caricatures. From all appearances, Michael is a supreme jerk. Jenny comes across as notably unlikable and difficult to sympathize with. Paul has some odd obsessions, but there is also a glimmer of goodness in him. The same could be said for Rebecca, the most likeable character; she has some flaws but nothing abnormal. Basically we have two very disagreeable characters actively seeking an extramarital affair. Then we have both men trying to get home during the unnamed disaster. My final verdict is that Klein's writing is good enough that I will look for future novels by him, but perhaps avoid it if it features an affair.

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


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tin Man

Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Penguin Publishing Group: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735218727

Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a highly recommended emotionally powerful story of first loves and a love triangle. It is about love, friendship, loss, and survival.

The first part of the narrative is set in 1996 and is told through Ellis Judd's point-of-view in the third person. Ellis is a 45-year-old widower who works the night shift in a car plant in Oxford in 1996. He is still mourning the death of his wife, Annie, five years earlier. Even before that, though, he is grieving his father forcing him to leave school and abandon all hope of becoming an artist years ago, right after his mother died. He is also grieving the loss of his friend, Michael. Ellis, Annie and Michael were inseparable, until Michael abruptly left for London.

For me this quote packed a powerful emotional reaction:
"Billy came out and saw him looking up with tears frozen before they could fall. And he wanted to say to Billy, I'm just trying to hold it all together, that's all.
He wanted to say that because he had never been able to say that to anyone, and Billy might be a good person to say it to. But he couldn't."
Have you ever been going through something extremely hard and wanted to tell someone "I'm just trying to hold it all together?" I know that feeling and anyone who has ever experienced something so hard and dark and overwhelming will immediately relate to Ellis' feelings.

The second part of the narrative is set in 1989 and is from the first person point-of-view of Michael's journal entries. As much as Ellis loved Annie, his friend Michael loved him. They met as 12-year-old boys and were inseparable as they helped and supported each other. Michael's story is that of a gay man facing the AIDS crisis as a former lover is dying, and it covers his return to his two friends in Oxford.

A copy of a Van Gogh sunflower painting, as indicated by the cover, also plays a role in the story. Ellis's mother loved it and won a copy in a raffle when pregnant with Ellis. She shared her love of art with Ellis and Michael.

There is no question that Tin Man is a beautifully written novel, eloquent and emotional. The complex relationship between the characters and the inner emotional lives of Ellis and Michael are explored, but not fully developed. The narrative is not linear, especially with Ellis, and jumps around in time and subject matter. Some of the gaps in the story and the timeline must be filled in through supposition by the reader. Occasionally these leaps were challenging to follow. Still, this is a superb and stunning novel that offers several memorable quotes. 4.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group.

The Favorite Sister

The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll
Simon & Schuster: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501153198

The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll is a recommended thriller for fans of reality based TV.  We know from the start that season 4 of Goal Diggers, the New York City based reality series that showcases entrepreneurial woman, results in murder. The question is why was Brett Courtney murdered and who did it?

On Goal Diggers all five of the female cast members compete with each other for audience popularity and a greater share of social media hype to stay on the show. Brett, the youngest cast member, is the owner of a spin studio franchise and quick to make it clear that being skinny does not mean being healthy. She's moving in with her girlfriend this season, which will surely up ratings. Returning cast members include: Stephanie Simmons, the oldest, is a bestselling author of erotic novels and the first black cast member; Jen Greenberg, the vegan owner of a juice bar line and health food guru; Lauren Bunn, a dating website creator and known as Lauren Fun! on the show. The latest addition to the show is Brett's older sister, Kelly, a single mother who runs Brett's ever expanding business empire.  Jesse is the network executive who controls the focus of the series and what will be highlighted. The focus for season four will be on the rift and resentment that is growing between Stephanie and Brett, former best friends.


The narrative is told through alternating first person accounts of what happened before and during the production of season 4. Excerpts from Jesse's interview with Kelly after Brett's murder open and close the book, and are also included a few times in-between the first person accounts. This clearly demonstrates how muddy the line between truth and fiction is in the reality TV show and real life. 

The start is slow as we are introduced to the woman, their lives, and getting a glimpse into what they are thinking or scheming. You will need to keep track of who is talking in each chapter until you get a grip on the characters. As events unfold with secrets revealed and lies exposed, it becomes clear that the tension is going to boil over and something bad is going to happen. There are humorous moments in The Favorite Sister and Knoll does manage a message about the reality TV obsession - the striving for a few more minutes of public fame, and the need to appear to be young and relevant in order to stay in the public spotlight. 

While very well-written, the problem with The Favorite Sister for me is that I simple couldn't muster the capacity to care about these women. They all seemed like caricatures of a type rather than real people. Perhaps it is because I don't watch reality TV shows and don't care about them. Also my lack of following pop culture, etc could have influenced how I related to the book. Knoll's gets points for the writing, the message she was trying to get across, and the ending, which was a surprise. I have a feeling that this novel will do much better with a younger reader (20s or 30s) and anyone who loves to watch reality shows like real housewives and... I can't even name any.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster via
Netgalley