Thursday, April 25, 2013

Untold Damage

Untold Damage by Robert K. Lewis
Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd., 4/8/2013
Trade Paperback, 278 pages
ISBN-13: 9780738735764
Mark Mallen Novel , #1 
A gritty mystery of loss and redemption on the San Francisco streets
Estranged from his wife and daughter, former undercover cop Mark Mallen has spent the last four years in a haze of heroin. When his best friend from the academy, Eric Russ, is murdered, an address found in his pocket points to Mallen as the prime suspect.
As the police turn up the heat and Russ’s survivors ask him to come up with some answers, Mallen sets out to serve justice to the real killer. But first, he’ll have to get clean and face the low-life thugs who want him dead. Surviving drive-by shootings and beat downs, Mallen discovers the motives behind a string of vengeful murders. But turning a life around is hard work for a junkie. Bruised, alone, and written off by nearly everyone, can Mallen keep clean and get back into his daughter’s life?

My Thoughts:
In Untold Damage by Robert K. Lewis ex-cop Mark Mallen is a junkie. He used to be an undercover officer in San Francisco, but now he's been in a downward spiral for four years. He has alienated former friends and is estranged from his wife and daughter. As if his life wasn't already at the lowest point possible, suddenly he finds himself a suspect in the execution-style murder of his former best friend from the police academy, Eric Russ. Unknown to Mallen, Eric's life had taken a sad turn. When he was found, he had a bullet through his head, needle tracks in his arms, and vials of heroin along with Mallen's phone number in his pocket.
Mallen visit's Russ' parents to pay his condolences. When he tries to do the same for Eric's wife, he arrives to find her apartment trashed while she is laying on the floor, brutally beaten. Before he can really take in what he's seeing, handcuffs are slapped on him. Mallen ends up asking to be thrown into jail so he can clean up. When he gets out, it becomes clear that some kind of vengeance/homemade justice is being dealt out.
As the body count rises, Mallen tries to run his own investigation while he avoids getting beaten to death or killed himself. This is a gritty mystery as Mallen travels through some tough districts and encounters some even tougher characters, he soon is on the trail to unraveling what is happening, why, and who is responsible.
The action keeps moving along at a brisk pace and justice is never quite what it seems in this debut novel by Robert K. Lewis. Lewis is establishing a series to follow with his very flawed protagonist/almost antihero Mark Mallen. While we are used to hard drinking ex-cops who solve crimes/mysteries, a recovering junkie is a new twist on the prototype.
There is already a second book in the series, Critical Damage, due to be released in the future. 
Highly Recommended

Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. He is a contributor to Macmillan’s crime fiction fansite, Criminal Element. Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers Association. Untold Damage is his first novel. Visit him online at and at
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
HarperCollins; 6/12/2012
Hardcover; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780061928123
The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.
And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.
What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.
My Thoughts:
In Beautiful Ruins there are several storylines and captivating characters that are introduced. Pasquale Tursi is a young man who, after his father's death, is now the owner of his family's pensione, "Hotel Adequate View," in the small Italian port village of Porto Vergogna or "Port of Shame." In April of 1963, young American actress Dee Moray is brought to his inn, being told that she is dying from stomach cancer. She had a small part in the cinematic juggernaut that was the film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, before she became ill. She was sent there by a young assistant, Michael Deane.
Fifty years after this chance encounter, Pasquale shows up in Hollywood, looking for Michael Deane, but instead meets his assistant, Claire Silvers, along with an aspiring young writer, Shane Wheeler. We are also introduced, through his writing, to another aspiring author, Alvis Bender, who vacations yearly at the Hotel Adequate View where he works on his book about his experiences in WWII. Later we meet Dee's son, Pat, as well as others. Several of the characters are writers (plays, novels, film ideas) and Walter inserts excerpts of their creative work into the story as part of the novel.
Clearly, there is quite a list of characters and the novel jumps back and forth in time. Lest you begin to think that the numerous characters might become burdensome to keep track of, let me assure you that it was really a pleasure to follow all these various strands to their ultimate connection and conclusion. In many ways Beautiful Ruins highlighted how fate can play a role in people's lives and their relationships to each other. And I don't want to say too much more about the plot for fear I will spoil if for you.
The epigraph in Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter includes a quote from Louis Menand in The New Yorker: "[Dick] Cavett's four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980. . . . Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing." Thus, we are introduced to one source for the title of this beautiful and mesmerizing novel.  Another beautiful ruin is Italy. And another is found in the characters.
The writing in Beautiful Ruins is a sheer pleasure to read. It is at times: suspenseful, romantic, tragic, comic, heart-breaking, and mysterious.  
It is an intelligent, discerning, entertaining novel that I would encourage everyone to read.
Very Highly Recommended

Jess Walter is the author of the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets, the National Book Award finalist The Zero, the Edgar Award-winning Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind, and the New York Times Notable Book Over Tumbled Graves. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his family.

The paperback edition of Beautiful Ruins is being released on 4/2/2013. 
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes. 


Monday, April 15, 2013

One Step Too Far

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis
Kirk Parolles, 4/15/2013
Trade Paperback, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0957544321

An apparently happy marriage.  A beautiful son.  A lovely home.  So what makes Emily Coleman get up one morning and walk right out of her life to start all over again?  Has she had a breakdown?  Was it to escape her dysfunctional family - especially her flawed twin sister Caroline who always seemed to hate her?  And what is the date that looms, threatening to force her to confront her past?  No-one has ever guessed her secret.  Will you?

My Thoughts:

In One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis,  Emily Coleman changes her name and leaves her husband, Ben, and their beloved Charlie as well as her whole previous suburban life in Chorlton, Manchester, England behind - including her parents and twin sister, Caroline. Emily moves to North London and changes her name to Catherine (Cat) Brown. She finds a room in a crumbling boarding house, makes friends with fellow tenant, Angel, looks for a job, and embarks on living a new life. Cat is very different from Emily. She begins drinking in earnest and taking drugs. But the burning question is why would Emily leave everything?

While reading there is some indication of why Emily left, what the impetus was that compelled her to leave everyone, but nothing is clearly stated until the end of the novel, and the answer is likely not going to be what you think. This is a novel about the price of escape, but it is also about the complicated emotional legacy families leave each other and how you really can never escape your past.

Seskis cleverly weaves stories from everyone's past in alternating chapters with Emily's new life. The reader will jump into the past and meet Emily's parents, her twin sister, her husband. As Emily's family history is slowly revealed, you might be tempted to make some assumptions about Emily's reasons for leaving - but you have to wait for a shocking event that will lead to the whole story.

In this well written, clever debut novel, Seskis does an excellent job of building suspense and keeping us interested in Emily and her family (and their back stories) right up to the end. Her timing on the disclosure was superb. While interested and engaged in the novel all along, there was a point when I was slapped in the face with information and raced to the end of One Step Too Far to get the answers I so desperately needed. I suspected some things, but Seskis still managed to surprise me.

Very Highly Recommended

Disclosure: My advanced reader's Kindle edition was courtesy of Kirk Parolles via Netgalley for review purposes.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The New Republic

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver
HarperCollins; 3/27/2012
Hardcover; 380 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062103321

Ostracized as a kid, Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. A disgruntled New York corporate lawyer, he's more than ready to leave his lucrative career for the excitement and uncertainty of journalism. When he's offered the post of foreign correspondent in a Portuguese backwater that has sprouted a homegrown terrorist movement, Edgar recognizes the disappeared larger-than-life reporter he's been sent to replace, Barrington Saddler, as exactly the outsize character he longs to emulate. Infuriatingly, all his fellow journalists cannot stop talking about their beloved "Bear," who is no longer lighting up their work lives.
Yet all is not as it appears. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba—"The Daring Soldiers of Barba"—have been blowing up the rest of the world for years in order to win independence for a province so dismal, backward, and windblown that you couldn't give the rat hole away. So why, with Barrington vanished, do terrorist incidents claimed by the "SOB" suddenly dry up?
A droll, playful novel, The New Republic addresses weighty issues like terrorism with the deft, tongue-in-cheek touch that is vintage Shriver. It also presses the more intimate question: What makes particular people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? What's their secret? And in the end, who has the better life—the admired, or the admirer?

My Thoughts:
In The New Republic by Lionel Shriver novice journalist/ex-lawyer Edgar Kellogg is offered the temporary post of foreign correspondent for the National Record. His post is in Barba, a fictional part of Portugal, where his assignment is two fold: report on the terrorist activities of the SOB (Os Soldados Ousados de Barba) and find out what happened to enigmatic, charismatic, and missing reporter Barrington Saddler.
When he arrives in Barba, it is apparent that Barrington is exactly the kind of man that Edgar has always envied. Edgar has been asking himself for years why some people are simply more magnetic and irresistible to others. It is clear, talking to Barrington's friends and acquaintances in Barba, that their beloved "Bear" is one of those larger-than-life characters. It is puzzling, though, that terrorist activity has stopped in Barba now that Barrington is missing.
The New Republic was originally written in 1998, but publication was held off because of the terrorism in the novel. As Shriver writes in the Author's Note: "[In 1998] my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigners’ Boring Problem and I was unable to interest an American publisher in the manuscript." Then, post 9/11, she felt that any novel which treated terrorism “with a light touch” would have been “in poor taste.” She is hoping that the novel "can now see print without giving offense." In the end, though, it is the age of the novel combined with its light touch and unlikable characters that combine to create a novel that I struggled to enjoy.
First let me make it clear that I appreciate/lionize Lionel Shriver's writing. She deftly always uses the perfect word in every sentence. Her vocabulary is beyond my comprehension. And she is clever. Very clever. All these traits were present in The New Republic. The problem is not with her writing. It's not with the terrorism either. The problem, for me, was found in the sluggish middle of the book, the dated feeling to the novel (with all the reporters working for print publications), and, most especially, in the unlikable characters.
However, questioning the role of journalists is probably more cutting edge than the terrorism and it's too bad Shriver didn't rewrite this novel in order to aim her sharp satire at current journalists, all in a frenzy, following the scent of the day.
If you make it to the end of The New Republic it will redeem itself for the niggling problems it also contains.
Recommended, Highly Recommended for fans of Lionel Shriver 

Lionel Shriver's novels include the National Book Award finalist So Much for That, the New York Times bestseller The Post-Birthday World, and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She lives in London and Brooklyn, New York.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius
by Kristine Barnett
Random House, 4/9/2013
Hardcover, 272
ISBN-13: 9780812993370 

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At nine he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize, and at age twelve he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine’s journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes.

The Spark is a remarkable memoir of mother and son. Surrounded by “experts” at home and in special ed who tried to focus on Jake’s most basic skills and curtail his distracting interests—moving shadows on the wall, stars, plaid patterns on sofa fabric—Jake made no progress, withdrew more and more into his own world, and eventually stopped talking completely. Kristine knew in her heart that she had to make a change. Against the advice of her husband, Michael, and the developmental specialists, Kristine followed her instincts, pulled Jake out of special ed, and began preparing him for mainstream kindergarten on her own.

Relying on the insights she developed at the daycare center she runs out of the garage in her home, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob’s “spark”—his passionate interests. Why concentrate on what he couldn’t do? Why not focus on what he could?  This basic philosophy, along with her belief in the power of ordinary childhood experiences (softball, picnics, s’mores around the campfire) and the importance of play, helped Kristine overcome huge odds.

The Barnetts were not wealthy people, and in addition to financial hardship, Kristine herself faced serious health issues. But through hard work and determination on behalf of Jake and his two younger brothers, as well as an undying faith in their community, friends, and family, Kristine and Michael prevailed. The results were beyond anything anyone could have imagined.

Dramatic, inspiring, and transformative, The Spark is about the power of love and courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child, and in all of us.
My Thoughts:

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett is about how Kristine nurtured, supported, and encouraged her autistic son to be all he is capable of being. Her son, Jake, just happens to be a prodigy in math and science. Jake "began taking college-level courses in math, astronomy, and physics at age eight and was accepted to university at nine. Not long after, he began work on an original theory in the field of relativity."

"...Jake’s improbable mind is all the more remarkable for the fact that it was almost lost.... [after a] diagnosis of autism Jake had received when he was two. We had helplessly looked on as our vibrant, precocious baby boy gradually stopped talking, disappearing before our eyes into a world of his own. His prognosis quickly went from gloomy to downright grim. When he was three, the goal the experts set for him was the hope that he’d be able to tie his own shoes at sixteen." (Location 91-95)

The Spark is the story of how Kristine went from the diagnoses that Jake would never speak or tie his shoes to his being paid for advanced degree college research at age 12. Kristine believes that her journey with her remarkable son is due to "the power of hope and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we keep our minds open and learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child." (Location 97)

She firmly believes that focusing on what a child diagnosed with autism can do and what they enjoy, rather than their limitations, can help any child achieve goals beyond the expected. Kristine ran a daycare, and in the evenings she held special classes to support and teach local special needs children how to go to school. She also has a community program she designed to help these kids experience sports in a way that they can participate.

Although this is described as a memoir about her son, it really is about Kristine Barnett. And, at times, I found Kristine's voice in this account bordering self-righteousness and superiority. There in lies some of the issues I had with The Spark. Now, admittedly some of my issues are because I am likely not Kristine's target audience. First, I am currently working in public school special education. For all the side-stepping around her true feelings, it was quite clear that she does not respect SPED personnel. However, some of her issues could have been resolved with the public schools had she entered into meetings with a positive frame of mind along with her assertiveness, rather than the combative attitude her interactions seem to have taken.

Then, later, she makes it clear that her husband wanted his kids to experience the normal childhood he had, so home schooling was not an option. I home schooled my kids through high school - very successfully too. This kind of comment always makes me shake my head. Home schooled kids have plenty of opportunities to experience what kids in other schools experience, and perhaps more time and freedom to do so while parents tailor their educational needs to best fit them.

What I really wanted to read about was what she did do - not just the struggles, but the successes. She mentions she had great success and gives a few individual examples, but, really, just in passing. If she is having such phenomenal success with helping autistic kids adjust, then this, along with the success story of her son, should have been the focus of this book. There was a lot of repeating that play is important and that parents need to follow what kids are interested in - but most parents understand and do that already. (Even most special ed programs do that.)

I had an advanced reading copy and so some of the errors and leaps in the book could have been corrected (like going from jobless and broke to it's all A-okay again without much explanation), as well as some of the little snips (like toward public school SPED). Perhaps I just need to admit that this story, as interesting and appealing as it is, simply isn't told in a manner that I can take seriously. I think a good book could be found in Jake's story, but, for me, this wasn't quite it.

Even with these complaints, The Spark is enjoyable and may help give other parents hope and ideas that might work with their children (but don't expect too many new ideas). Other advanced readers are giving it all five stars, so my feelings likely are not going to be the norm here.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die by Bianca Sloane
eBook; 11/2012
655 KB or 290 pages

On a bitterly cold January evening, Tracy Ellis went for a jog along Chicago’s snowy lakefront and disappeared. Her body was discovered days later, her beautiful face bashed in with a rock. Police determine her brutal death to be a mugging gone wrong and drop the matter into their cold case files.

Over a year later, Tracy’s sister, Sondra, still can’t come to grips with what happened. She throws herself into her work as a documentary filmmaker to try and forget the cruelty of her sister’s death. However, a chance encounter with a man from Tracy’s past rips the wound open and sends Sondra on a desperate search for answers about the secrets from her sister’s life that may have led to her death.

As Sondra struggles to uncover what happened to Tracy, she’s launched into a tangled web of deceit and danger that puts her on a collision course with life and death…

My Thoughts:
Live and Let Die by Bianca Sloane is a psychological thriller wrapped around a murder mystery. The novel opens with a mysterious woman named Paula needing hospitalization in a mental institution. Then we meet Sondra Ellis. Sondra wants nothing but happiness for her younger sister, Tracy, as she marries Phillip, but that happiness is short lived. Tracy is found brutally murdered, which has left Sondra, their parents, and Phillip to try to recover and pull their lives back together.
After a year has passed, Phillip sends a letter to Tracy's mother saying that he has remarried, which re-opens the family's grief. Sondra always though Phillip was weird, but if Tracy loved him then she must have saw something in him that the family missed. However, Sondra runs into an old boyfriend of Tracy's and discovers that Tracy may not have been as happily married as everyone thought, which leads her to look more closely at Phillip and her sister's marriage. Meanwhile Phillip is happily married to Paula, who is slavishly devoted to precisely following his every order.
For a debut novel, Live and Let Die flows very smoothly - or perhaps I should say "gallops" because I was reading at a frantic pace to discover what happens next. It certainly is a well written mystery that kept me engaged throughout and doesn't quite follow a predictable formula. Oh, I thought I had things figured out, and my  conclusions seemed to be close, but were soon proved incorrect. Plus, there is an extra twist at the very end that I was not expecting at all. The unpredictability of the ending is another sign of a debut writer who deserves success and I expect to hear a lot more about her in the future.  

I liked the characters, especially Sondra's determination and attitude. Phillip and Paula were disturbing, but I don't want to say much more about that. I will have to admit that in the beginning of the novel if Sondra ran her fingers through her dark, tangled hair and then frantically needed a cigarette one more time I was considering setting the book aside.Then, as the action picked up and things started to get very intriguing, those actions seemed to stop, or at least they no longer bothered me.
Currently Live and Let Die is available as an eBook. Bianca Sloane has two other novels coming out: Sweet Little Lies and Every Breath You Take. 
Very Highly Recommended - and please read to the very end!

He looked down at her and brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. “Paula. Her name is Paula.” Location 121

Tracy turned to look at herself in the bedroom’s full-length mirror, examining herself from every angle. “You know why I wanted you to wait, right?”
Sondra chuckled. “I knew something had to be up. Alright, spill it.”
“My something new. Mommy gave me something blue and borrowed, Cicely gave me the old, so… that leaves you as something new.” Tracy started examining her eye makeup in the mirror. “God knows I don’t want anything old or borrowed from you. No telling what trashcan you might have pulled it out of.”
“Jeez, you drag one table home from a curb in the eighties and you’re branded for life.”
“Keep playing innocent. Now, come on, let’s go. Cough it up.” Location 138-144

 “I’m gonna miss her too. But, my cell phone is one of those global things and I’ll have access to email, though it may not be the greatest.” Sondra put the plate down on the table, only half of the cake eaten. “We’ll still be in touch.” Location 213 

Her body had been discovered along the lakefront, her face bashed in. Her empty wallet was found a few feet away and the police ruled it to be a mugging gone wrong, but had no leads. Phillip took on the gruesome task of IDing the body. Location 271-273

 It had been brutal to have them all there, fawning all over him, offering their condolences and memories. He’d wanted to run screaming from the house and counted the minutes until he was free of all well-wishers, grieving friends, and in-laws. Location 304-306

“Downtown. She was out running some errands, and kind of like you and I today, we just ran into each other.”
 “How was she? I mean how did she seem?”
Jack hesitated for a moment. “Unhappy.”
“What, like she was having a bad day?”
Jack shook his head and slumped back against the peeling vinyl seat, the material crackling under his movements. “No, that wasn’t it.”
Location 420-424
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Bianca Sloane for review purposes.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Something About Sophie

Something About Sophie by Mary Kay McComas
HarperCollins, 3/26/2013
Paperback, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062084804

Clearfield, Virginia, is a sleepy, idyllic hamlet where residents welcome its comfortable, familiar routines. But when a newcomer arrives in town, long-buried secrets threaten to surface and destroy their haven . . .
Answering a call that summons her to a stranger's deathbed, a reluctant Sophie Shepard is too late to hear what he was so anxious to tell her. What was so important that a dying man would think of her in his final moments? With the help of Dr. Drew McCarren, Sophie begins to dig into her past, setting off a chain of events that chills the quiet town of Clearfield, Virginia, to its roots.
With part of her wanting nothing more than to put Clearfield behind her and run back home, Sophie knows she won't rest until she discovers the truth. But growing closer to the residents also means uncovering their dark secrets-secrets about the woman who gave Sophie up for adoption, the mysterious part these strangers played, and the life she never knew she nearly had.
Something About Sophie is a memorable story about the power of love . . . and the things people will do, both right and wrong, to protect it.

My Thoughts:
Something About Sophie by Mary Kay McComas is a mystery and a romance novel. The novel opens with a dying man, Arthur Cubeck, is killed for telling an unnamed stranger that he has contacted Sophie Shepard to give her information about her birth. Sophie, a kindergarten teacher, was adopted as an infant, but she loves her parents and never wanted to find her birth mother. In fact, Sophie's mother has recently died and she is still mourning her death. When she receives Arthur's letter, Sophie hesitates, but finally decides to go see him. Alas, Sophie arrives too late. She learns that Arthur has passed away, but she is startled to learn that he has left her something in his will.
At the same time Sophie is attracted to Arthur's oncologist, Dr. Drew McCarren. Soon, while tentatively pursuing a relationship with Drew, Sophie is also clearly in danger as people are being murdered for something they know. Sophie ends up staying at a bed and breakfast run by Jesse, who quickly becomes a friend and confidant.
Something About Sophie is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and all their past shenanigans. Sophie handles everything swirling around her with an aplomb perkiness that perhaps would be unrealistic in real life, but this is a pleasant diversion of a novel and so it's easy to accept her seemingly nonsensical composure just as it is easy to accept her immediately making friends with almost everyone. She's likeable.
McComas moves the plot along at a nice pace, passing along clues and information to keep your attention. I didn't feel any nail-biting tension, however. It is not a dark novel, despite the deaths and intrigue, although a final revelation is quite sad. Additionally, it is clear that everything will turn out good in the end so the novel is really just about the journey.
Highly Recommended - this is a pleasant read and would actually would be a great vacation novel.
Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes. 

Monday, April 1, 2013


Vacationland by Sarah Stonich
University of Minnesota Press, 4/1/2013
Paperback, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780816687664
On a lake in northernmost Minnesota, you might find Naledi Lodge—only two cabins still standing, its pathways now trodden mostly by memories. And there you might meet Meg, or the ghost of the girl she was, growing up under her grandfather’s care in a world apart and a lifetime ago. Now an artist, Meg paints images “reflected across the mirrors of memory and water,” much as the linked stories of Vacationland cast shimmering spells across distance and time.
Those whose paths have crossed at Naledi inhabit Vacationland: a man from nearby Hatchet Inlet who knew Meg back when, a Sarajevo refugee sponsored by two parishes who can’t afford “their own refugee,” aged sisters traveling to fulfill a fateful pact once made at the resort, a philandering ad man, a lonely Ojibwe stonemason, and a haiku-spouting girl rescued from a bog.
Sarah Stonich, whose work has been described as “unexpected and moving” by the Chicago Tribune and “a well-paced feast” by the Los Angeles Times, weaves these tales of love and loss, heartbreak and redemption into a rich novel of interconnected and disjointed lives. Vacationland is a moving portrait of a place—at once timeless and of the moment, composed of conflicting dreams and shared experience—and of the woman bound to it by legacy and sometimes longing, but not necessarily by choice.

My Thoughts:

I loved Vacationland by Sarah Stonich. Vacationland is a collection of 15 interrelated stories that all share a connection to Naledi Lodge on Little Hatchet Lake on the laurentian divide in Minnesota. It was a summer resort, dubbed "vacationland" years ago, but cabins have disappeared and it is now a private home. Naledi Lodge was built and ran by Czech immigrant Vaclav Machutova for many years during its prosperity.  Meg , his granddaughter, spent summers there and winters in Chicago boarding schools after her parents are killed in an airplane crash. Now Meg is an artist who makes Naledi her home. 
Stonich's writing is impeccable. Each story could stand alone but together they made a beautiful descriptive symphony. It was a serenade of emotive descriptions. I love all of Stonich's descriptions of the settings in Vacationland. They are simultaneously seductive, but spiritual; atmospheric yet pungent. I could feel everything -  the bitter cold, and then the scorching heat and biting black flies. I could smell the woods, feel the weather, experience and appreciate the environment and terrain like a local.
I appreciated the portrayal of her characters just as much. They were all handled with such empathy and humanity as their struggles were slowly revealed. Each of them has a unique, individual voice. They are complex, fully realized characters. As a summer resort worker many years ago, I knew many of these people - the dismissive summer people, the reticent terse locals, the old men drinking coffee. I understand the difference between the people who just visit briefly and those who stay.
Separation: A scene with Meg, as an adult and prominent artist, after her dog brings home an unpleasant surprise.
Reparation: An man recalls an affair he had at Naledi with another guest.
Destination:  Adult sisters recall an euthanasia promise they made to each other when young. 
Assimilation: A Balkan refugee struggles to assimilate into the community.
Moderation: A counselor at a rehab clinic deals with his angry, aging father
Navigation:  A young girl gets lost when visiting her great grandmother's cabin.
Calculation: A young couple wants to start a family.
Echolocation: An American Indian man finds his way after a life changing event in a changing community.
Omission: Aging, long time resident of Little Hatchet Lake, Ursa Olson, struggles to remain self-reliant.
Orientation: Meg's aunt and cousin delivers her mother's ashes.
Disembarkation: Meg's parents die in a plane crash.
Hesitation: A science professor and soon-to-be writer, Polly, stays at Naledi when Vaclav nears the end of his life.
Approximation: Polly's childhood and life before Naledi.
Occlusion: Meg and her elderly surrogate grandmother, Polly, at Nadeli.
Tintinnabulation: Meg reflects on her life as an artist to a student reporter

I loved this collection.
Very Highly Recommended
Disclosure: My Kindle advanced reading edition was courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press via Netgalley for review purposes.