Friday, May 31, 2013

The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Random House; 3/26/2013
Hardcover, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400067688

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

My Thoughts:
Elizabeth Stout's latest novel, The Burgess Boys, introduces us to the whole Burgess family. The boys, now middle aged men, are Jim and Bob. They both escaped their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, as soon as they could and are currently living in New York City. Susan is Bob's bitter, divorced twin sister who stayed in Maine with her teenage son, Zachery. When we meet the Burgess boys, Jim is a well known, successful corporate attorney. He married Helen, a wealthy socialite who is devoted to Jim and making his life comfortable. Jim is still basking in the laurels he received from defending a famous client in Maine years earlier.  Jim constantly belittles Bob, a divorced Legal Aid attorney, who seems to amicably drift through life, perhaps a bit befuddled and carrying latent guilt for a childhood occurrence, but taking everything in stride.
The boys receive a call from Susan begging for help. Her son, Zach, has committed a thoughtless misdemeanor that has serious social/political repercussions, not only in their community but in the state. It is causing a media frenzy as a hate crime against Somali refugees who have immigrated to Maine. Although the Burgess family has not been close, Bob rushes to Maine to support Susan and Zach. What Susan wanted, however, was Jim's support. Jim and Helen told Bob to go to Maine while they proceeded with their vacation plans. Bob's help seems inept and he is told this by Jim and Susan. But, as the novel progresses, everything is not quite as it seems. There are hidden anxieties and secrets.
The story is told from the point of view of several characters: Bob, Helen, Susan, Zach, Bob's ex-wife Pam, a friend of Helen's, and a leader in the Somali community, but not Jim. These are all very realistic characters with the foibles and frailties that many middle-aged people encounter along the way. The story is about family loyalties,  disappointments, community, isolation, ego, racism, and anxieties. The novel itself is broken up into 4 parts and they flowed smoothly and quickly for me. Each of the characters had an individual voice, and everything was expertly blended together to tell the story.
The Burgess family is a very dysfunctional family, and Strout excels at capturing the very human emotions and feelings of her characters with remarkable sympathy, wisdom, and poignancy. The clarity and keen insight she manages while describing very realistic observations about the human condition is commendable. There were times when her writing just left me breathless. Literally breathless. The depth of character she creates and the intense discernment she manages to capture in a few sentences is brilliant.
The Burgess Boys doesn't end with all storylines reaching a graceful conclusion, but like life, the novel is better for this.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

15 Days Without a Head

15 Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins
Llewellyn Worldwide, 5/8/2013
Paperback, 302 pages
ISBN-13: 9780738736426
Fifteen-year-old Laurence Roach just wants a normal life, but it’s far from easy with his little brother who acts like a dog and their depressed alcoholic mother. If Laurence can win the luxury vacation in a local radio contest, he’s certain his mum will finally be happy again. Then one night she doesn’t come home from work, and Laurence must face the reality that she might not come back at all.
Terrified that child services will separate him from his brother, Laurence does whatever he can to keep their mother’s disappearance a secret. For two weeks, he spins a web of complicated lies to friends, neighbors, and the authorities—even dressing up in his mother’s clothes to convince everyone she’s still around. But Laurence can’t hide the truth forever. He begins a desperate search for her, and that’s when the real trouble starts in this powerful story about family, forgiveness, and hope.

My Thoughts:
In Dave Cousins' debut YA novel, 15 Days Without a Head, 15-year-old Laurence Roach and his six-year-old brother, Jay, are abandoned by their alcoholic mother and left to fend for themselves for two weeks. Life was hard for Laurence even before his mother left. He had to make sure she got up in the morning, get his brother to school, run across town to get to his school, and then rush back after school to pick his brother up. After this he had to keep Jay safe until their mother returned home and finished her "happy hour" before she was approachable and then he put Jay to bed.  
Life becomes even more difficult when she disappears. With little to no money and food, as well as a very snoopy neighbor and sitter, Laurence is scrambling to keep Jay safe and avoid having social services called on them, while simultaneously searching to find out what happened to their mother. He is also desperately trying to win a dream vacation in a call-in radio show trivia contest. Laurence believes that a vacation is what his alcoholic mother needs to make everything better. When Laurence makes a friend he can confide in, Mina, their life becomes somewhat better with her help. But Nelly, the nosy and mean-spirited downstairs neighbor, is getting suspicious. It's also getting harder to keep Jay safe and protect him from the truth.
While the subject matter is dark and serious, 15 Days Without a Head  is nicely balanced with some lighter, humorous incidents. While I wanted the boys to contact social services and get help, I can understand why Laurence is afraid to do this and remains determined to keep her disappearance a secret and find his mother before someone finds out she is gone. Both Laurence and Jay are very sympathetic characters while their mother, needless to say, is not. This novel takes a serious look at how alcoholism can affect families without becoming overbearing. The conclusion was satisfying while keeping realistic.
15 Days Without a Head was originally published in 2012 in the U.K. The age range on this YA book is 12 and up.
highly recommended - for YA fiction
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of  Llewellyn Worldwide via Netgalley for review purposes.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II  
by Denise Kiernan
Touchstone; 3/5/2013
Hardcover, 373 pages
At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of civilians—many of them young women from small towns across the South—were recruited to this secret city, enticed by solid wages and the promise of war-ending work. Kept very much in the dark, few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed each day in the hulking factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. That is, until the end of the war—when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed.
Drawing on the voices of the women who lived it—women who are now in their eighties and nineties— The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. Combining the grand-scale human drama of The Worst Hard Time with the intimate biography and often troubling science of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Girls of Atomic City is a lasting and important addition to our country’s history.

My Thoughts:

I anxiously anticipated reading The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and I am delighted to report that I was not disappointed.  In The Girls of Atomic City, Kiernan introduces us to a wide range of woman who worked at Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This self-contained community was part of the Manhattan Project and home to a top secret uranium project. Most of these woman had no idea what project they were working on until after the fact. The nickname "Atomic City" didn't exist until after WW II ended.
Kiernan introduces us to nine women who worked at Oak Ridge. They run the gamut in their education and experience. There was a chemist, statistician, secretaries, technicians, a nurse, and a janitor. They were white and black; married and unmarried. Kiernan cover's their stories while also following the development of atomic fusion. All the women knew that they were part of a secret project to help the war, but most had no idea what they were helping develop. It was a job and a good paycheck, which represented a way for the women to help themselves and, in many cases, their families, during difficult years. Part of what the women were also dealing with was the societal expectations of the times. Two examples include: women were not considered head of their households; black married couples were not allowed to live together.
Since The Girls of Atomic City cover's women's history during WW II, and the formation of the atomic bomb, it belongs in both of these nonfiction collections. Kiernan's writing style made this nonfiction narrative read like a novel as she divulges the stories of these strong women and what they did in Oak Ridge while simultaneously covering the making of the bomb. Kiernan includes pictures, the cast of characters, maps, an epilogue, notes, and an index, all additions that are highly valued and appreciated by this reader.
Very Highly Recommended
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Touchstone via Netgalley for review purposes.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Humanity Project

The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson
Blue Rider Press, 4/23/2013
Hardcover, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399158711

After surviving a shooting at her high school, Linnea is packed off to live with her estranged father, Art, who doesn’t quite understand how he has suddenly become responsible for raising a sullen adolescent girl. Art’s neighbor, Christie, is a nurse distracted by an eccentric patient, Mrs. Foster, who has given Christie the reins to her Humanity Project, a bizarre and well-endowed charity fund. Just as mysteriously, no one seems to know where Conner, the Fosters’ handyman, goes after work, but he has become the one person Linnea can confide in, perhaps because his own home life is a war zone: his father has suffered an injury and become addicted to painkillers. As these characters and many more hurtle toward their fates, the Humanity Project is born: Can you indeed pay someone to be good? At what price?
Thompson proves herself at the height of her powers in The Humanity Project, crafting emotionally suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining characters, in which we inevitably see ourselves. Set against the backdrop of current events and cultural calamity, it is at once a multifaceted ensemble drama and a deftly observant story of our twenty-first-century society.

My Thoughts:

Jean Thompson's latest novel, The Humanity Project, follows the lives of several forlorn people in the Bay area.  Sean and Connor, his son, are about to lose their home. Sean is handyman who is unable to find enough work to support them. Then, after contacting a woman on Craig's List, he is in a mysterious car accident that leaves him in even worse condition. Now he is crippled and unable to work. Connor has to give up his dreams of higher education. He turns to petty theft and ends up becoming a handyman to an older woman, Mrs. Foster. Christie, a home healthcare nurse, is named by Mrs. Foster, a wealthy patient and extreme cat lady, to head a foundation she wants to bequest to pay people to be good to each other. She wants to call it The Humanity Project. Christie's awkward neighbor, Art, an unambitious adjunct professor, struggles to establish some kind of social connection with people. His teenage daughter, Linnea, is sent out to live with him after surviving some mysterious school shooting in Ohio. Linnea and Connor eventually meet and become friends.
So, if all of this sounds depressing, honestly The Humanity Project is depressing as it focuses on this group of various individuals who are doing what they can just to survive. It focuses on some of the major social issues people are facing today: poverty, broken families, violence, estrangement, alienation, homelessness, drug abuse. While focusing on the problems her characters are facing, Thompson is also exploring how much their plight and struggles are directly related to their economic circumstances. No answers are provided as we follow her characters, which are not entirely likeable.
What works is Thompson's superb writing. Even while I was questioning the train-wreck that is every interconnected character's life in this novel, Thompson's ability to render these characters in a very realistic manner allowed me to feel some empathy with their plight. Yes, their lives are a mess and I really wondered how The Humanity Project, which is brought up at almost the half-way point of the book, was going to become a driving force of change. It isn't. It is an idea, a concept, but it isn't brought to fruition in this novel. The ending does offer further explanation on several occurrences and some semblance of closure, but this is not a feel-good happy ending kind of novel.
The rating of The Humanity Project becomes problematic in some ways. It is rife with characters that are down trodden by life and not fulfilled in any way. It is extremely  well written and a compelling social commentary, but not an easy book to read. In some ways it felt much longer than the actual pages. Additionally, since it is hard to become totally enmeshed with the characters, I always felt some disconnect with them. This is a serious book.
Highly Recommended, but I know it may not be a good choice for everyone
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Blue Rider Press via Netgalley for review purposes.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Blood Drama

Blood Drama by Christopher Meeks
White Whisker Press; around June 15, 2013
Print &  eBook, 242 pages


Everyone has a bad day. Graduate student Ian Nash has lost his girlfriend in addition to being dropped from a Ph.D. program in theatre at a Southern California university. When he stops at a local coffee shop in the lobby of a bank to apply for a job, the proverbial organic matter hits the fan. A gang of four robs the bank, and things get bloody. Ian is taken hostage by the robbers when the police show up. Now he has to save his life.
FBI Special Agent Aleece Medina’s analysis of the bloody bank heist drives her into the pursuit of a robbery gang headed by two women. She doesn’t anticipate how this robbery will pit her against both the bandits and the male higher-ups in the FBI while the media heats up during a giant manhunt.
The robbers are about to kill Ian, and all he has at hand is his knowledge of the stage.

My Thoughts:

Blood Drama by Christopher Meeks introduces us to Ian Nash, a grad student who has been kicked out of his PhD program. To make matters worse, while applying for a job at a coffee shop in a bank lobby, Ian is taken captive by bank robbers lead by the Busty Bandit and her gang. What is different about this Busty Bandit robbery, however, is that this time it has turned deadly. Hot on Busty's trail is FBI Special Agent Aleece Medina, who is trying to discover the identity of the hostage while tracking down the robbers. 

Once Ian manages to escape, one of the robbers, called Owen, seems determined to kill him. Owen leaves a trail of bodies while trying to track Ian down. Agent Medina is doing her best to find out what Ian knows and how it will help her track down the robbers. At the same time, Ian is determined to insert himself into the investigation in order to help Medina solve the case and bring the robbers to justice.

Ian is a hapless hero who uses his knowledge of theatre and deductive reasoning to solve clues about the robbers along side Agent Medina, who is fighting to solve and stay on the case. Even as she nears solving it, male higher-ups want to step in, take over, and, perhaps, take credit for the resolution. As they try to solve the case, Aleece and Ian also are fighting their attraction to each other.

Blood Drama was highly entertaining and extremely enjoyable. It is a combination black comedy and crime novel. The characters of Ian and Aleece are memorable, quirky, and unique. I  reveled in Ian's quoting David Mamet (or some other playwright or work of literature) to deduce and interpret the information he had to ascertain where the clues were leading them. 

As always, Meeks is a gifted writer. He has a pleasing way of propelling the action forward while developing his plot and characters. I had an advanced reading copy so I'm not providing quotes, but I couldn't help but share this gem:
"English teachers liked using allusions the way kids love sprinklers." 

I enjoyed Meeks Love at Absolute Zero quite a bit, but I liked Blood Drama even more. I'm hopeful that Meeks will bring back Ian and Aleece to solve another crime. 

Very Highly Recommended

Christopher Meeks first published short fiction in a number of literary journals, and the stories
are available in two collections, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons. Recently, he’s focused on novels. The Brightest Moon of the Century is a story of a man who yearns for love and success, covering over thirty years—a tale that Marc Schuster of Small Press Reviews describes as “a great and truly humane novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and John Irving.” His last novel, Love At Absolute Zero, is about a physicist who uses the tools of science to find his soul mate–and he has just three days. Critic Grady Harp calls the book “a gift.” The new novel, Blood Drama, has him edge into a thriller. Meeks also runs White Whisker Books and publishes four authors.

Disclosure: I received a digital advanced reading copy of this book from Christopher Meeks and Premier Virtual Author Book Tours for review purposes.   

Friday, May 17, 2013


Snapper by Brian Kimberling
Pantheon Books/Random House: 4/23/2013
Hardcover, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307908056

A great, hilarious new voice in fiction: the poignant, all-too-human recollections of an affable bird researcher in the Indiana backwater as he goes through a disastrous yet heartening love affair with the place and its people.
Nathan Lochmueller studies birds, earning just enough money to live on. He drives a glitter-festooned truck, the Gypsy Moth, and he is in love with Lola, a woman so free-spirited and mysterious she can break a man’s heart with a sigh or a shrug. Around them swirls a remarkable cast of characters: the proprietor of Fast Eddie’s Burgers & Beer, the genius behind “Thong Thursdays”; Uncle Dart, a Texan who brings his swagger to Indiana with profound and nearly devastating results; a snapping turtle with a taste for thumbs; a German shepherd who howls backup vocals; and the very charismatic state of Indiana itself. And at the center of it all is Nathan, creeping through the forest to observe the birds he loves and coming to terms with the accidental turns his life has taken.

My Thoughts:
Brian Kimberling's debut novel, Snapper, features thirteen chapters that are really loosely connected stories chronicling Nathan Lochmueller's maturation into adulthood. Nathan grew up in southern Indiana (as did author Kimberling). After graduating with a philosophy degree, he accepts a job as a songbird field researcher. Nathan spends his time hiking through the woods locating songbirds, their nests, and tracking them. During this time period Nathan falls in love with Lola.
Nathan has a love/hate relationship with Indiana. Even as he shares the foibles of its people, he has a devotion to them, especially Evansville. But this novel is not simply about an amateur ornithologist stumbling through life. It's so much more and tackles Nathan's maturation with a great deal of wry humor and thoughtful insight. While relating the blunders and shortcomings of those around him he calmly accepts the absurdities as a part of life. Most of the stories are college/post college but some go back to high school. They end with Nathan in his thirties.
The characters Kimberling has assembled in Nathan's stories are unforgettable. There is Lola who Nathan worships even while she's unfaithful; Gerald, his socially awkward boss who owns a sofa and bird guides; his friend, Shane, with whom he has several interesting experiences before Shane becomes a librarian; his Texan uncle Dart who has a clash with the clan; Fast Eddie who in the future will promote "Thong Thursdays" at his business; Ernie and Maude of Santa Claus, Indiana; and Darren, the man who ended his career as a songbird field researcher.
I really enjoyed the writing in Snapper - the word play and the descriptions were wonderful. Kimberling manages to be funny and subtle while making a poignant observation. For example: "A real ornithologist spends his life in a database: I was the underpaid field hand who collected the information in that database. I was like a voracious reader unwilling to taint or corrupt his passion by submitting to years of studying postcolonialism or feminist theory. "(pg. 140) (Touché Brian - you just described my passion for book blogging.)
As Kimberling captures the haphazard, accidental path Nathan's life takes it reminds me that many of us have taken a rather accidental road to get where we are years later. And the results are not always a bad thing, despite how it may look from the outside.
Oh, and the cover of this book is gorgeous. It features reproductions of John James Audubon images.
Very Highly Recommended

Brian Kimberling grew up in southern Indiana and spent two years working as a professional birdwatcher before living in the Czech Republic, Turkey, Mexico, and now England. He received an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University in 2010.
Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by Pantheon Books/Random House for review purposes.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Immortal Bird

Immortal Bird by Doron Weber 
Simon & Schuster, 2/5/2013
Trade Paperback, 358 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451618075

Damon Weber is a brilliant kid—a skilled actor and a natural leader at school. Born with a congenital heart defect that required surgery when he was a baby, Damon’s spirit and independence have always been a source of pride to his parents, who vigilantly look for any signs of danger.
Unbowed by frequent medical checkups, Damon proves to be a talent on stage, appears in David Milch’s HBO series Deadwood, and maintains an active social life, whenever he has the energy. But running through Damon’s coming-of-age in the shadow of affliction is another story: his father Doron’s relentless search for answers in a race against time.
Immortal Bird is a stirring, gorgeously written memoir of a father’s fight to save his son’s life.
My Thoughts:
Immortal Bird by Doron Weber is a father's tribute to his son, Damon, who died too early. Damon was born on August 8, 1988 with a congenital heart defect that required two open heart surgeries (the Fontan procedure) when he was a baby. Years later, a month after 9/11, it becomes clear to his vigilant and hyper-alert parents that Damon is not thriving and something else may be wrong. Damon has PLE, protein losing enteropathy.
After exhaustive medical checkups and intensive research by Weber, all signs seemingly point to the PLE being a result of the Fontan operation. Doron learns that if the medical community cannot find a way to stabilize Damon's PLE, he will eventually need a heart transplant. Finally it became clear that Damon needs the heart transplant, which brings in its wake a whole new set of concerns. One clearly evident failure was the medical community in charge of Damon's case - or rather their lack of taking charge and following through with the proper attentive need for care and concern - and even proper medication.
At the same time that his parents are seeking a way to help him, Damon is maturing and showing himself to have the potential to become a great actor. Even while clearly not well, he still manages to thrive socially as much as he is able to and explore his talents and abilities.
Is this a memoir for everyone? No.
For some people Immortal Bird  would simple be too painful to read, especially if you have had a family member or close friends struggling to endure and maintain the attentiveness a long-term illness or condition requires. It is a tribute from a heart-broken father to his son that recounts the triumph and the pain. How fragile is our hold on life and yet even a life cut short has value and meaning. I just don't think this is a memoir I could recommend to some people because they couldn't emotionally handle reading it.
Members of the medical community might want to read it as a cautionary tale on what not to do. There were some cringe-worthy medical moments that could have been avoided.
Highly Recommended - but this is not a book for everyone.

Doron Weber is an American author best known for his critically acclaimed memoir, IMMORTAL BIRD (Simon & Schuster, hardcover 2012, paperback 2013. Born on a kibbutz in Israel in 1955, Weber is a graduate of Brown University (B.A., 1977) and studied at the Sorbonne and Oxford University (M.A., 1981), where he was a Rhodes Scholar In addition to his writing and his career in the nonprofit world–he has held positions at the Readers Catalog, Society for the Right to Die, The Rockefeller University, and since 1995, at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation where he has created seminal programs in science and the arts–Weber has worked as a newspaper boy, busboy, waiter, and taxi driver, has competed as a boxer and triathlete, and, in the summer of 2012, biked 3400 miles in the Big Ride Across America.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from Simon & Schuster and TLC  for review purposes. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Half as Happy

Half as Happy by Gregory Spatz
Engine Books, 4/16/2013
Trade Paperback, 188 pages
ISBN-13: 9781938126093
A grieving couple rents a desperate landlord's house in an effort to recover lost intimacy. Twins are irrevocably separated by events both beyond and within their control. A nighttime prank and its gruesome aftermath forge human connections no one could have anticipated.

The eight stories in Half as Happy reveal with startling clarity their characters' secrets, losses, and desires. Each with the depth of a novel,
these insightful portraits of the darkness and light within us reverberate long after they've ended, like beautiful and disturbing dreams.

My Thoughts:
My one regret while reading Half as Happy by Gregory Spatz is that I didn't have the time to savor the stories and the writing quite as much as it deserves to be appreciated. My only excuse is that I moved several weeks ago and am still trying to unpack after work. This collection of eight short stories is expertly wrought with a great attention to details and descriptions. It's the kind of collection that could turn anyone into a fan of the art of the short story.
The collection includes:
"Any Landlord's Dream" concerns a couple who rent a house in the attempt to help them recover from a great loss.
In "Happy For You," an older woman contemplates her life during a very early morning call from a son 
"No Kind of Music" concerns a failed relationship
"Luck" is about a couple on an Alaskan cruise.
"The Bowmaker's Cats" is about a bow maker and disappearance.
"A Bear For Trying" is about twins and their connection to each other.
"Half as Happy" is about a wife who is losing too much weight.
"String" is about a group of good kids who did something wrong.
Of course, none of these descriptions come close to capturing the magic in these melancholy, complex stories. Their beauty lies in the completeness of the characters. They are fully realized, even in these short stories. The detailed descriptions add to the intricate stories. Don't expect cheerful outcomes where everything turns out for the best in the end. Even when the outcome seems good, or at least acceptable, there are still compromises that are made and burdens that must be born. The characters may not even be aware of their flaws and foibles. They are, all of them, dysfunctional and emotionally stunted, but very human and hurting.
Very Highly Recommended
Gregory Spatz is the author of Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press), Fiddler's Dream, No One But Us, and Wonderful Tricks. His short stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines, and he has published numerous book and music reviews in The Oxford American. He is the winner of a 2012 NEA Literature Fellowship.

 Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes.