Thursday, May 29, 2014

Problems with People

Problems with People: Stories by David Guterson
Knopf Doubleday: 6/3/2014
Hardcover, 176 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385351485

Ten sharply observed, funny, and wise new stories from the best-selling author of Snow Falling on Cedars: stunning explorations of the mysteries of love and our complex desire for connection.
Ranging from youth to old age, the voices that inhabit Problems with People offer tender, unexpected, and always tightly focused accounts of our quest to understand each other, individually, and as part of a political and historical moment. These stories are shot through with tragedy—the long-ago loss of a young boyfriend, a son’s death at sea; poignant reflections upon cultural and personal circumstances—whether it is being Jewish, overweight and single, or a tourist in a history-haunted land; and paradigmatic questions about our sense of reality and belonging. Spanning diverse geographies—all across America, and in countries as distant as Nepal and South Africa—these stories showcase David Guterson’s signature gifts for characterization, psychological nuance, emotional and moral suspense, and evocations of small-town life and the natural world. They celebrate the ordinary yet brightening surprises that lurk within the dramas of our daily lives, as well as the return of a contemporary American master to the form that launched his astonishing literary career.
My Thoughts:

Most of the characters in Guterson's stories don't even have names, which enhances the sense of isolation and solitude that surrounds them. Each story is a small picture of a character that is being developed subtly,  gently, by an author with an understanding of human nature and its nuances.

Most of the characters in Guterson's stories don't even have names, which enhances the sense of isolation and solitude that surrounds them. Each story is a small picture of a character that is being developed subtly,  gently, by an author with an understanding of human nature and its nuances.

This is a well written collection that should resonate with those who enjoy thoughtful short stories that focus on character development and the frailties of human nature.

Paradise - a couple in their sixties who met through an online dating service are starting a new relationship
Tenant - a landlord struggles over his questions about his new tenant
Pilanesberg - an adult brother visits his dying sister in Africa 
Politics - a man admires a beggar tenacity at first and then has enough of him
Feedback - a woman obsesses over Hamish McAdam's name and its seemingly incongruous ethnicities
Hot Springs -  a judge who ignores being Jewish is reminded of his heritage
Krassavitseh - a father and son tour Holocaust memorials in Germany
Shadow - the retired narrator has developed short-term memory loss which negatively impacts his life
Photograph - a couple grieve over their grown son's drowning death, while the wife blames her husband
Hush - a friendship develops between a dog walker and her gravely ill customer

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reach for Infinity

Reach for Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris: 5/27/2014
Trade Paperback. 352 pages

ISBN-13: 9781781082034
An original collection of new short science fiction from the biggest and most exciting names in the genre. The latest in the Infinities collections edited and comissioned by multiple award-winning anthologist Jonathan Strahan.
What happens when humanity reaches out into the vastness of space? The brightest names in SF contribute new orginal fiction to this amazing anothology from master editor Jonathan Strahan. Including new work by Alastair Reynolds,Greg Egan,Ian McDonald, Ken Macleod, Pat Cadigan, Karl Schroeder, Hannu Rajaniemi, Karen Lord, Adam Roberts, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Aliette de Bodard Peter Watts, and others!

My Thoughts:

Reach for Infinity is the highly recommended third anthology of hard science fiction short stories in the Infinity series edited by Jonathan Strahan. The first two are Engineering Infinity and Edge of Infinity.

In the 14 short stories Strahan includes, he writes: "Many of the stories take place on Earth in the next hundred years, looking at points in time where people, or a person, look to make a critical difference and push forward towards something greater. Some of them take snapshots from places – deep within the future colonies of Mars or perched in the chromosphere of the sun – where humanity as a whole is pushing its boundaries and stretching its limits in order to achieve more. All of them are about, one way or another, reaching for infinity from within and without."

This collection presents a good variety of stories by accomplished authors from the hard science fiction genre.  While all of the stories included are beyond a doubt well-written and great examples of the short stories you will find in hard sci-fi today, as in any anthology, some resonated more closely to my own preferences than others. All in all, this was a good collection and I enjoyed it immensely. To be honest, it was refreshing to tackle a shorter collection like this  versus the usual huge and unwieldy "best of" collections that Strahan (and others) also edit.

Introduction by Jonathan Strahan
Break My Fall by Greg Egan
The Dust Queen by Aliette de Bodard
The Fifth Dragon by Ian McDonald
Kheldyu by Karl Schroeder
Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars by Pat Cadigan
Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts by Karen Lord
Amicae Aeternum by Ellen Klages
Trademark Bugs: A Legal History by  Adam Roberts
Attitude by Linda Nagata
Invisible Planets by Hannu Rajaniemi
Wilder Still, the Stars by Kathleen Ann Goonan
‘The Entire Immense Superstructure’: An Installation by Ken MacLeod
In Babelsberg by Alastair Reynolds
Hotshot by Peter Watts

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Green Girl

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
HarperCollins: 6/24/2014
eBook, 304 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062322838
With the fierce emotional and intellectual power of such classics as Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star, Kate Zambreno's novel Green Girl is a provocative, sharply etched portrait of a young woman navigating the spectrum between anomie and epiphany.
First published in 2011 in a small press edition, Green Girl was named one of the best books of the year by critics including Dennis Cooper and Roxane Gay. In Bookforum, James Greer called it "ambitious in a way few works of fiction are." This summer it is being republished in an all-new Harper Perennial trade paperback, significantly revised by the author, and including an extensive P.S. section including never before published outtakes, an interview with the author, and a new essay by Zambreno.
Zambreno's heroine, Ruth, is a young American in London, kin to Jean Seberg gamines and contemporary celebutantes, by day spritzing perfume at the department store she calls Horrids, by night trying desperately to navigate a world colored by the unwanted gaze of others and the uncertainty of her own self-regard. Ruth, the green girl, joins the canon of young people existing in that important, frightening, and exhilarating period of drift and anxiety between youth and adulthood, and her story is told through the eyes of one of the most surprising and unforgettable narrators in recent fiction—a voice at once distanced and maternal, indulgent yet blackly funny. And the result is a piercing yet humane meditation on alienation, consumerism, the city, self-awareness, and desire, by a novelist who has been compared with Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and Elfriede Jelinek.

My Thoughts:

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno was a chore for me to read. Oh, the writing is good, the imagery vivid, the capturing of a character spot-on - it's just that I disliked Ruth, green girls, and the whole idea of rampant consumerism, alienation as a way of life, and the whole angsty/ennui surfeit of this young woman and her self-destructive wonts. I think the problem is that I am so diametrically opposite that I certainly can't relate to her now, and couldn't when I was her age. Sorry but this is a did not finish for me. Reviews make it clear that many people appreciated Green Girl much more than I after the first third of the novel.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase

Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature
Edited by Brett Josef Grubisic, Gisèle M. Baxter, and Tara Lee
Wilfrid Laurier University Press: 5/28/2014
Textbook, paperback, 450 pages

ISBN-13: 9781554589890
What do literary dystopias reflect about the times? In Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase, contributors address this amorphous but pervasive genre, using diverse critical methodologies to examine how North America is conveyed or portrayed in a perceived age of crisis, accelerated uncertainty, and political volatility.
Drawing from contemporary novels such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and the work of Margaret Atwood and William Gibson (to name a few), this book examines dystopian literature produced by North American authors between the signing of NAFTA (1994) and the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (2011). As the texts illustrate, awareness of and deep concern about perceived vulnerabilities-ends of water, oil, food, capitalism, empires, stable climates, ways of life, non-human species, and entire human civilizations-have become central to public discourse over the same period.
By asking questions such as "What are the distinctive qualities of post-NAFTA North American dystopian literature?" and "What does this literature reflect about the tensions and contradictions of the inchoate continental community of North America?" Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase serves to resituate dystopian writing within a particular geo-social setting and introduce a productive means to understand both North American dystopian writing and its relevant engagements with a restricted, mapped reality.
My Thoughts:

Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase edited by Brett Josef Grubisic, Gisèle M. Baxter, and Tara Lee, is a very highly recommended scholarly collection of essays on dystopian literature of North America. Admittedly, Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase won't appeal to a broad general population, but, for readers with a literary bent who have traditionally enjoyed dystopian fiction and have been reading the new insurgence of titles and authors to the genre, this could stimulate some contemplation and discussions.

Published in Canada by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, the twenty-six essays of Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature focus on works published by North American writers from January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) came into effect, to the tenth anniversary of the suicide attacks of September 11, 2001. Clearly with the number of titles being released that fit into the dystopian category, the publishing industry realizes that dystopian fiction is popular and that it "quickly eclipsed its utopian counterpart; with the brutal regimes and massive casualties of the twentieth century, Atwood remarks, depicting awful societies 'became much easier'"

"Whereas the World Economic Forum defines dystopia as an actual (and forthcoming) 'place where life is full of hardship and devoid of hope,' Margaret Atwood describes dystopias as real or imaginary 'Great Bad Places . . . characterized by suffering, tyranny, and oppression of all kinds'." Location 391

While some of the titles discussed in the essays are current popular YA fiction offerings, many are not. This would be a great foundational source for a college literature class on dystopian fiction. I could envision some lively discussions based on what individuals thought about the novels versus the opinions found in the essays. I've read many of the selections discussed and found myself pining for a discussion.

In "Lost in Grand Central: Dystopia and Transgression in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods" author Robert Tally says, "Famously, some dystopias emerge from the attempts to form some sort of utopian society (as in the notorious visions of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), but more often the dystopian aura envelops a reality that has simply proceeded along in its quotidian ways. One goes about one’s everyday life and work, while as time passes noting this or that odd occurrence that might be a sign; a creeping suspicion evolves toward certainty, a gloomy presentiment congeals into visible shape, and dystopia appears, right here and right now, where it has been for a while." (Location 6070)

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Wilfrid Laurier University Press for review purposes.


Part I Altered States
The Man in the Klein Blue Suit: Searching for Agency in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy by Janine Tobeck
The Cultural Logic of Post-Capitalism: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Popular Dystopia by Carl F. Miller 
Logical Gaps and Capitalism’s Seduction in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl by Sharlee Reimer 
“The Dystopia of the Obsolete”: Lisa Robertson’s Vancouver and the Poetics of Nostalgia by Paul Stephens 
Post-Frontier and Re-Definition of Space in Tropic of Orange by Hande Tekdemir
Our Posthuman Adolescence: Dystopia, Information Technologies, and the Construction of Subjectivity in M.T. Anderson’s Feed by Richard Gooding

Part II Plastic Subjectivities
Woman Gave Names to All the Animals: Food, Fauna, and Anorexia in Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Fiction by Annette Lapointe 
The End of Life as We Knew It: Material Nature and the American Family in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Last Survivors Series by Alexa Weik von Mossner 
“The Treatment for Stirrings”: Dystopian Literature for Adolescents by Joseph Campbell 
Imagining Black Bodies in the Future by Gregory Hampton 
Brown Girl in the Ring as Urban Policy by Sharon DeGraw  

Part III Spectral Histories
Archive Failure? Cielos de la Tierra’s Historical Dystopia by Zac Zimmer 
Love, War, and Mal de Amores: Utopia and Dystopia in the Mexican Revolution by Marie Odette Canivell 
Culture of Control/Control of Culture: Anne Legault’s Récits de Médilhault by Lee Skallerup Bessette
The Sublime Simulacrum: Vancouver in Douglas Coupland’s Geography of Apocalypse by Robert McGill
Neoliberalism and Dystopia in U.S.-Mexico Borderlands Fiction by Lysa Rivera 
America and Books are “Never Going to Die”: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story as a New York Jewish “Ustopia” by Marleen S. Barr 
In Pursuit of an Outside: Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No Towers and the Crisis of the Unrepresentable by Thomas Stubblefield
Homero aridjis and Mexico’s Eco-Critical Dystopia by Adam Spires

Part IV Emancipating Genres
Lost in Grand Central: Dystopia and Transgression in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods by Robert Tally 
Which Way is Hope? Dystopia into the (Mexican) Borgian Labyrinth by Luis Gómez Romero 
Dystopia Now: Examining the Rach(a)els in Automaton Biographies and Player One by Kit Dobson
The Romance of the Blazing World: Looking back from CanLit to SF by Owen Percy
“It’s not power, it’s sex”: Jeanette Winterson’s The PowerBook and Nicole Brossard’s Baroque at Dawn by Helene Staveley 
Another Novel Is Possible: Muckraking in Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! and Robert Newman’s The Fountain at the Center of the World by Lee Konstantinou 453
Contributor Biographies

The Map Thief

The Map Thief by  Michael Blanding
Gotham: 5/29/2014
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781592408177

The story of an infamous crime, a revered map dealer with an unsavory secret, and the ruthless subculture that consumed him
Maps have long exerted a special fascination on viewers—both as beautiful works of art and as practical tools to navigate the world. But to those who collect them, the map trade can be a cutthroat business, inhabited by quirky and sometimes disreputable characters in search of a finite number of extremely rare objects.
Once considered a respectable antiquarian map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley spent years doubling as a map thief —until he was finally arrested slipping maps out of books in the Yale University library. The Map Thief delves into the untold history of this fascinating high-stakes criminal and the inside story of the industry that consumed him.
Acclaimed reporter Michael Blanding has interviewed all the key players in this stranger-than-fiction story, and shares the fascinating histories of maps that charted the New World, and how they went from being practical instruments to quirky heirlooms to highly coveted objects. Though pieces of the map theft story have been written before, Blanding is the first reporter to explore the story in full—and had the rare privilege of having access to Smiley himself after he’d gone silent in the wake of his crimes. Moreover, although Smiley swears he has admitted to all of the maps he stole, libraries claim he stole hundreds more—and offer intriguing clues to prove it. Now, through a series of exclusive interviews with Smiley and other key individuals, Blanding teases out an astonishing tale of destruction and redemption.
The Map Thief interweaves Smiley’s escapades with the stories of the explorers and mapmakers he knew better than anyone. Tracking a series of thefts as brazen as the art heists in Provenance and a subculture as obsessive as the oenophiles in The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Blanding has pieced together an unforgettable story of high-stakes crime.

My Thoughts:

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding is a very highly recommended nonfiction account of a map dealer who stole hundreds of antique maps from collections, as well as a history lesson about some of the maps he stole.

You don't have to love old maps to fully appreciate The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by  Michael Blanding, but it helps if you at least appreciate them and enjoy reading about the history behind the creation of some of the maps.

E. Forbes Smiley III was an antiquarian map dealer who was also a thief. He stole an unknown quantity of maps, perhaps over 200, from libraries and collections, and then sold these public treasures in order to finance his lifestyle. Since the number of actual rare maps Smiley stole is unknown (although a list of known stolen maps from around the world is included), it is difficult to put a total price on what he stole but it was certainly in the millions.

Blanding interviewed Smiley at the beginning of the book, but later Smiley tried to distance himself from the publishing of this book. At that point Blanding had already been talking to "a wider circle of people, investigating a paper trail of court documents, and spending hours sifting through library archives and volumes of old maps." With or without Smiley's further cooperation, Blandings began to piece together "an answer to my biggest question: Why did a respected map dealer at the height of his profession betray those closest to him—and deface the artifacts he spent his life preserving? The more I researched his story, however, the more questions I uncovered—to the point where I began to suspect that his reasons for cutting off our  correspondence had less to do with the advice of his advisor or the impact on his family, and more to do with his own fears of exposing secrets he has never revealed."

Since Blanding also has a love of old and rare maps he is a good author to tell this story which involves the history of the maps themselves and the intrigue of Smiley's prolonged theft of so many maps over several years. Blanding writes, "I read about him in The New Yorker in October 2005 with fascination—first, for the maps themselves, these historical documents that were at once beautiful and flawed, and second, for this strange character at the center of the crime, so mysterious in his decision to despoil the world he loved."

After the news of Smiley's arrest for stealing maps broke and the word was out to curators, "One by one, they began to call with panicked reports of maps missing from books in their collections as well. As they did, more questions began to reverberate through the insular world of map libraries, collectors, and dealers: Why had a respected and successful antiquarian dealer turned against those who trusted him and stolen the things he loved most? And how long had he been getting away with it?"

This fascinating book not only covers the deeply flawed and contradictory personality of Smiley and his lifestyle, it also does an excellent job explaining the history, provenance, and importance of various maps and precisely why they are so valuable. He talks to other map dealers, clients, and curators. The book includes an 8 page color insert and black and white photos throughout, chapter notes, and an index. As mentioned, there is a list of all the maps that are known to be missing from libraries and public collections worldwide.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Gotham Books for review purposes.

The Man with the Compound Eyes

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi
Knopf Doubleday: 5/20/2014
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307907967

When a tsunami sends a massive island made entirely of trash crashing into the Taiwanese coast, two very different people—an outcast from a mythical island and a woman on the verge of suicide—are united in ways they never could have imagined. Here is the English-language debut of a new and exciting award-winning voice from Taiwan, who has written an “astonishing” novel (The Independent) that is at once fantasy, reality, and dystopian environmental saga.
Fifteen-year-old Atile’i—a native of Wayo Wayo, an island somewhere in the Pacific—has come of age. Following the custom of his people, he is set adrift as a sacrifice to the Sea God but, unlike those who have gone before him, Atile’i is determined to defy precedent and survive. His chances seem slim, but just as it appears that hope is lost, Atile’i comes across a sprawling trash vortex floating in the ocean and climbs onto it.
Meanwhile, on the east coast of Taiwan, Alice, a college professor, is overcome with grief. Her husband and son are missing, having disappeared while hiking in the mountains near their home. Alice is so distraught that she decides to end her own life. But her plans are interrupted by a violent storm that causes the trash vortex to collide with the Taiwanese coast, bringing Atile’i along with it. Alice and Atile’i subsequently form an unlikely friendship that helps each of them come to terms with what they have lost. Together they set out to uncover the mystery of Alice’s lost family, following their footsteps into the mountains. Intertwined with Alice and Atile’i’s story are the lives of others affected by the tsunami, from environmentalists to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples—and, of course, the mysterious man with the compound eyes.
A work of lyrical beauty that combines magical realism and environmental fable, The Man with the Compound Eyes is an incredible story about the bonds of family, the meaning of love, and the lasting effects of human destruction.
My Thoughts:

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi is a recommended novel that weaves magic realism into a novel with an environmental message.

Originally published in Taiwan, the narrative of The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi follows two very different people, Atile’i and Alice.  Atile’i, is an exiled teen from the Wayo Wayoan tribe, who "thought the whole world was but a single island."Atile'i shared the fate of every Wayo Wayoan second son - he is exiled and sent off into the ocean in a canoe and expected to die. Instead he finds himself living on an island made of garbage. Alice Shih is a grieving mother in Taiwan who "got up early one morning and decided to kill herself." When a massive earthquake hits, she goes back to sleep with the thought that she was planning to die anyway. Rather than dying "She got up, looked out the window, and found herself standing on a remote island in the midst of an immense ocean, as frothy waves rolled relentlessly across the distance toward the shore."

The narration of the story switches between Atile’i and Alice. The two find themselves together when a tsunami causes the garbage island to collide with Taiwan. The two form a family-like bond and go on to meet a cast of others. Included is a dose of magic realism, surrealism,  share cultural stories and myths, and a very pro-environmentalism message. It is very much concerned with the relationship people have with each other and especially with the earth. The progression of the narrative is not in a linear fashion, but instead has memories and stories intertwined with the plot development.

While The Man with the Compound Eyes is well written and the translation seems to capture some of the lyricism that must be present in the original version, it is also not an easy, quick read as it will take some time and dedication to start to understand the rhythm of the book and the flow of the plot. Those who enjoy hearing stories and folk lore from other cultures and magic realism will likely appreciate this book. The overwhelming arching theme, however, is that we are destroying our environment, so if that will upset you, pass this one up.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Closed Doors

Closed Doors by Lisa O'Donnell
HarperCollins: 5/20/2014
Hardcover, 256 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062271891

In this tense and brilliant tale from the national bestselling author of The Death of Bees, a young boy on a small Scottish island, where everyone knows everything about everyone else, discovers that a secret can be a dangerous thing.
Eleven-year-old Michael Murray is the best at two things: hacky sack and keeping secrets. His family thinks he's too young to hear grown-up stuff, but he listens at doors—it's the only way to find out anything. And Michael's heard a secret, one that may explain the bruises on his mother's face.
When the whispers at home and on the street become too loud to ignore, Michael begins to wonder if there is an even bigger secret he doesn't know about. Scared of what might happen if anyone finds out, and desperate for life to return to normal, Michael sets out to piece together the truth. But he also has to prepare for the upcoming talent show, keep an eye out for Dirty Alice—his archnemesis from down the street—and avoid eating Granny's watery stew.
Closed Doors is the startling new novel from Lisa O'Donnell, the acclaimed author of The Death of Bees. It is a vivid evocation of the fears and freedoms of childhood and a powerful tale of love, of the loss of innocence, and of the importance of family in difficult times.

My Thoughts:

Closed Doors by Lisa O'Donnell is a very highly recommended novel which focuses on a certain time period of a family in crisis.

Michael Murray is the narrator of Closed Doors. He is eleven years old and lives on a small Scottish island with his parents and his grandmother. Michael astutely describes his mother and life on the island "Everyone says Ma is very smart and could have gone to university or something like it, but she was too in love with my da and mad for the island, even though people here gossip all the time and want to know all your business. It makes my granny crazy, even though she gossips all the time and wants to know everyone’s business.“ (Location 109) So it's like any small town anywhere.

Michael talks about things eleven year old boys are interested in - his friends, the social interactions between the neighborhood children, what he observes in his neighborhood. His life takes a dark twist when his mother is mother is found brutally beaten and adult readers will understand that she was raped, but Michael is told she saw a flasher and he doesn't understand what has really happened to his mother. "My ma has been flashed at and I want to know what it means. She’s in hospital with a sore face and a limp. She fell hard because of this flasher. I have a right to know what’s going on and why I’m to tell everyone she fell on the stairs." (Location 319)

Because Michael is told to lie, rumors start flying that his father is to blame for his mother's beaten face. His mother does not want to report the rape because she is ashamed about it and she doesn't want people to talk. This creates additional stress for a family already at a breaking point."It’s been well over a month now and Granny says Ma has to pull herself together. Granny says she has to get on with her life. Ma nods and gets out of bed, and then goes to the bathroom and everyone rolls their eyes to heaven. Da asks about the flasher every chance he gets. 'Try and remember something, anything. He’s out there, Rosemary. He might hurt someone else. I don’t want that on my conscience.' It makes Ma cry when he says this." (Location 378)

Set in the 1980's, Michael is, perhaps, a bit more naive than those his age might be today.  Adult readers will know what has really happened and will understand that Michael suspects more has happened than he has been told so he must figure out the truth from his limited knowledge. In an attempt to try to make some sense of his world Michael discovers what is going on and what his parents and others are saying by eavesdropping - listening behind the closed doors.

Lisa O'Donnell is a fantastic writer and manages to capture the voice and thoughts of Michael perfectly. Even when he turns to a dictionary to make sense of what he has been told, it is clearly what a child would do during that time in history. (Today they'd google those same words.) Children always hear and know more than adults/parents realize they do. 

O'Donnell succeeds in describing what Michael overhears, what he knows, and how he pieces the information together. He knows that his mother has changed. He wants their relationship to return to what it was; he wants her to love him like she used to, but also knows that they have both changed.

I loved O'Donnell's first novel, The Death of Bees, and while I love Closed Doors a wee bit less, I still will easily give it my highest recommendation - very highly recommended. Lisa O'Donnell is certainly a writer to keep watching. She does an excellent job developing her characters and then slowly allowing the plot to develop.

And Michael's right. It is "good to listen to your records when no one is looking."

Lisa O'Donnell won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for her screenplay The Wedding Gift. Her debut novel, The Death of Bees, was the winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. She lives in Scotland.

 TLC Tour Schedule

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins for review purposes. 

Monday, May 19, 2014


Decompression by Juli Zeh
Knopf Doubleday: 5/20/2014
Hardcover, 272 pages

ISBN-13: 9780385537582

A psychological thriller in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith about two couples caught in a web of conflicting passions while deep-sea diving off the beautiful Canary Islands
In the late 1990s, Sven Fiedler and his girlfriend, Antje, left Germany for the island of Lanzarote, rejecting what Sven considered a vulgar culture of materialism and judgment. The young couple set up a diving service catering to tourists eager to bask in the warm sunshine and explore the silent, gleaming marine paradise that makes this otherwise barren volcanic island such a remarkable retreat. Sven’s approach was simple: take the mechanics of diving seriously, instruct his clients clearly, and stay out of their personal business as best he can.
And life on the island goes smoothly until two German tourists—Jola von der Pahlen, a daytime soap star on the verge of cinematic success, and Theo Hast, a stalled novelist—engage Sven for a high-priced, intensive two-week diving experience. Staying in a guest house on Sven and Antje's property, the two visitors and their hosts quickly become embroiled in a tangle of jealousy and suspicion.

Sven is struck by Jola's beauty, her evident wealth, and her apparently volatile relationship with the much older Theo. Theo quickly leaps to the conclusion that Sven and Jola are having an affair, but, oddly, he seems to facilitate it rather than trying to intervene. Antje, looking on, grows increasingly wary of these particular clients.
As the point of view shifts from one character to the next, the reader is constantly kept guessing about who knows what, and, more important, who is telling the truth. A brutal game of delusion, temptation, and manipulation plays out, pointing toward a violent end. But a quiet one, down in the underwater world beneath the waves.
My Thoughts:

In Decompression by Juli Zeh, Sven and his girlfriend, who left Germany years ago, have a deep sea diving business on the island of Lanzarote. They cater to the tourists who come to visit. When two new customers, German tourists, show up, Sven finds himself attracted to  the woman, Jola von der Pahlen, an actress on a soap opera. Her older boyfriend, Theo Hast, is a writer who feels he is superior to everyone around him. 

The story is told from Sven's point of view and through Jola's diary entries. Clearly there is a cat and mouse game going on, but no one seems to know the reason behind it or how high the stakes are going to go. Although it does have a few elements of a psychological thriller, this is more of a character study of jealousy and lies with some abuse thrown into the mix.
Decompression by Juli Zeh is a so-so novel for me. While it is well written, I think it may have lost some of the flow of the original German. But even more than that, I detested every single loathsome character in this book, which made it hard to care what happened to them, no matter how intriguing the set up or exotic the local.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Son

The Son by Jo Nesbo
Knopf Doubleday: 5/13/2014
Hardcover, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385351379

The author of the best-selling Harry Hole series now gives us an electrifying stand-alone novel set inside Oslo’s maze of especially venal, high-level corruption.
Sonny Lofthus is a strangely charismatic and complacent young man. Sonny’s been in prison for a dozen years, nearly half his life. The inmates who seek out his uncanny abilities to soothe leave his cell feeling absolved. They don’t know or care that Sonny has a serious heroin habit—or where or how he gets his uninterrupted supply of the drug. Or that he’s serving time for other peoples’ crimes.
Sonny took the first steps toward addiction when his father took his own life rather than face exposure as a corrupt cop. Now Sonny is the seemingly malleable center of a whole infrastructure of corruption: prison staff, police, lawyers, a desperate priest—all of them focused on keeping him high and in jail. And all of them under the thumb of the Twin, Oslo’s crime overlord. As long as Sonny gets his dope, he’s happy to play the criminal and the prison’s in-house savior.
But when he learns a stunning, long-hidden secret concerning his father, he makes a brilliantly executed escape from prison—and from the person he’d let himself become—and begins hunting down those responsible for the crimes against him . . . The darkly looming question is: Who will get to him first—the criminals or the cops?

My Thoughts:

The Son by Jo Nesbo is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a well written, dark, gritty thriller/crime fiction with lots of twists and turns.

Sonny Lofthus, the son, is viewed as someone who can absolve people of their sins or misdeeds by his fellow inmates at Oslo’s Staten Maximum Security Prison because of his calm demeanor and almost nonverbal interaction with them. He's serving a sentence at the prison for two murders he didn't commit. Sonny is also a drug addict. He confessed to the murders in exchange for the heroin officials will provide to him.  It started when Sonny's father, Ab, a cop, hanged himself, leaving behind a note confessing to all his illegal misdeeds in the force. Sonny was manipulated into confessing to killing his father by corrupt officials in exchange for the heroin.

After twelve years in prison, Sonny is told that his heroin supply will be cut off if he doesn't confess to a new murder. Then, when an inmate dying of cancer, Johannes Halden, comes to Sonny begging forgiveness for his part in Ab's murder, Sonny is motivated to kick his addiction. With Johannes’ help, he escapes from prison and starts a killing spree targeting everyone he suspects of having played a role in his father's murder. Once out, Sonny begins to untangle the many threads of corruption that are interwoven throughout the many officials and criminals involved.

The Son is an extremely well written novel with a complicated plot full of twists and turns. The characters are all well developed and ther plot is intricate. But it is also a very violent, gritty, dark thriller. There is a lot of violence along with the action, but it is all intrinsic to the plot rather than gratuitous. Nesbo's stand alone novel not featuring detective Harry Hole, is also full of religious allegory.  For those who enjoy Swedish crime fiction, Nesbo is an obvious choice.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

The Good Spy

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird
Crown Publishing: 5/20/2014
Hardcover, 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307889751

The Good Spy is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird’s compelling portrait of the remarkable life and death of one of the most important operatives in CIA history – a man who, had he lived, might have helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.
On April 18, 1983, a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people.  The attack was a geopolitical turning point. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force, but even more important, it eliminated America’s most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East – CIA operative Robert Ames.  What set Ames apart from his peers was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values – never more notably than with Yasir Arafat’s charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka “The Red Prince”). Ames’ deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace.  Within a few years, though, both men were killed by assassins, and America’s relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust.
Bird, who as a child lived in the Beirut Embassy and knew Ames as a neighbor when he was twelve years old, spent years researching The Good Spy.  Not only does the book draw on hours of interviews with Ames’ widow, and quotes from hundreds of Ames’ private letters, it’s woven from interviews with scores of current and former American, Israeli, and Palestinian intelligence officers as well as other players in the Middle East “Great Game.”
What emerges is a masterpiece-level narrative of the making of a CIA officer, a uniquely insightful history of twentieth-century conflict in the Middle East, and an absorbing hour-by-hour account of the Beirut Embassy bombing.  Even more impressive, Bird draws on his reporter’s skills to deliver a full dossier on the bombers and expose the shocking truth of where the attack’s mastermind resides today.

My Thoughts:

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird is a very highly recommended biography of the life of Robert Ames.

First I have to admit that I've been looking forward to reading The Good Spy for months. After reading Bird's biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus,I knew this would be another biography that I simply couldn't pass on reading - and was I ever right. For those who love to delve deeper into history, especially of the turmoil in Middle East, this is a biography that simple should be read.

Robert Ames was a CIA operative and America's most capable and significant intelligence officer in the Middle East. Many of you will remember when a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983. Sixty three people were killed, including Robert Ames. This attack marked a critical moment in history when the Hezbollah became the prevailing political power in the Middle East while America lost one of our chief intelligence officers.

Robert Ames was born on March 6, 1934, in a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia. He went to La Salle University on a basketball scholarship. After this he was in the Army and happened to be assigned to Kagnew Station, which was operated by the NSA. This was when Bob Ames first discovered the world of intelligence. In 1960 he started working for the CIA. Ames became an expert on the Arabic world, including languages, history, and politics, and was naturally involved with trying to understand the conflicts in the area, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was able to form beneficial friendships and bonds with people.

"He was never naïve about the Middle East, a cockpit of power politics. He understood the personalities and motivations of the revolutionary left in the Arab world as much as he appreciated the rituals of the Sheiks.” Ames had understood that a good CIA officer must have a curiosity about the foreign other—and a certain degree of empathy for their struggles." (Location 184)

Bird writes: "Robert Clayton Ames was a very good spy. Everyone at the Central Intelligence Agency who knew him thought he was good at his work precisely because he was so very disarming and innocent. He was a classic American—idealistic and good-hearted and open as a Jimmy Stewart character. There was nothing phony about him, nothing cosmopolitan or pretentious. To the contrary, as another CIA officer later observed, he exuded a “rock-bottom American-ness that was neither Ugly nor Quiet.” Foreigners invariably liked him."(Location 212)

On a personal level, Ames was a devoted husband and father. He had converted to Catholicism and took his faith seriously. He lived a moral life. He was an intellectual who enjoyed reading. "Another CIA case officer, Sam Wyman, once asked Ames how he found the time to read books. 'Oh, I always make time to read—at least an hour a day,' Bob replied."(Location 1305) He was hardworking, curious, and idealistic. He was the perfect combination of personality traits to be a good spy.

"There was nothing complicated about the way Bob Ames learned to become a good spy. 'There was no deep trick to it,' Thomas Powers wrote of the art of intelligence. 'You had to want to know, you had to do a lot of homework, and you had to listen.' Ames was a listener. This is not to say that he listened without judgment. He listened as an American, and he was always skeptical. But he listened with a plain sense of human empathy. He listened to people who by any broad definition were easily labeled by policy makers back in Washington as terrorists." (Location 6077)

Beyond The Good Spy being a biography of Robert Ames, it is more importantly a modern history of the diplomacy and intelligence gathering in the Middle East in the 1970's to the mid-1980's.  The final chapter is chilling and should evoke a sense of outrage in most readers.

It is, perhaps, such a open, honest account of the Middle East at this time because Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird wrote The Good Spy "without the cooperation of anyone inside the CIA. Fortunately, I found more than thirty retired officers, both clandestine officers from the Directorate of Operations and analytical officers from the Directorate of Intelligence, who generously shared their memories of Bob Ames. Some of these individuals were willing to speak for the record, but many spoke not for attribution." (Location 84) He also knew Bob Ames when he was an adolescent. "He and his wife Yvonne were our next-door neighbors from 1962 to 1965 in the small U.S. consulate compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia."

Bird has a very helpful section of the cast of characters at the beginning of The Good Spy. As is my wont, I am always thrilled when a nonfiction book includes more. He also includes a prologue, epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography.

The Good Spy is essential reading for anyone interested in relationships with the Middle East.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Crown Publishing for review purposes.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The New Reality

The New Reality by Stephen Martino
Light Messages: 5/15/2014
eBook, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781611530742
Alex Pella Series #1

Author Stephen Martino delivers an action-packed medical thriller in a heart-stopping race to save humanity.
After a deadly retrovirus is inadvertently released upon the planet in 2080, no country is financially prepared to deal with such a disaster. Only the acclaimed neuroscientist, Alex Pella, and NIH expert, Marissa Ambrosia, have the audacity to lead a search for the cure while simultaneously fending off a foreign elite military unit sent to stop them. Guided by an ancient code concealed within the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the scientists must traverse ancient lands and attempt to solve a biblical riddle in order to save humanity from its eminent destruction.
Drawing from both our nation's politically charged environment and the worldwide economic crisis, The New Reality follows Alex Pella on a journey that projects a frightening path for human existence in the twenty-first century.
My Thoughts:

The New Reality by Stephen Martino is a highly recommended medical thriller.

In 2080 medical experiments being conducted on the Greek island of Astipalea that were meant to help mankind had turned into a nightmare for those involved, which is why Dr. Christakos chose to obliterate/vaporize the whole island as his final act to save humanity. A year later, in 2081, something that is referred to as The Disease is spreading through Greece and Turkey, afflicting more of its population than either government cared to divulge. "Since its appearance almost a year ago, it first spread quickly through Scientists could give it no other name. No pathological organism for this new scourge could be found. Neither bacteria, virus, protozoa nor other infectious agent was ever discovered. Even rare pathogens such as prions, similar to those causing mad cow disease, were investigated but without any success." (Location 180)

National Institutes of Health (NIH) expert, Marissa Ambrosia has taken a body for examination to Alex Pella because the NIH is at a complete loss in identifying the cause of The Disease. Alex Pella is the CEO and founder of Neurono-Tek, a neuroscience institution equipped with the latest scientific and medical equipment. He is also a world-renowned scientist with a "Ph.D. in both neuroscience and bioengineering, he had already discovered or created treatments for many of the most complicated neurological diseases. Other than his business partner Dr. Samantha Mancini, there was no one else as qualified to tackle such a difficult task." (Location 274)

At the same time a Malik or Arab chief named Ari Lesmana, is gathering armed forces against the west, blaming The Disease on them “First the West brought you despair. Now they bring you The Disease!” The crowd hissed and booed. Others shouted anti-Western sentiments. “You all know of Tustegee [sic]!” he said with a sinister snicker." Location 483

Adding to this lethal mix there is an army of small bug-like creatures on the loose. "Spawned out of death and created for destruction, they were like little demons sent to unleash horror onto the unsuspecting world. Their one-centimeter, oval-shaped bodies had tiny little spikes adorning their back, resembling some ancient type of armor. Their heads were like something seen in a horror movie. Four red eyes, two beaded antennae, and an elongated jaw full of serrated teeth with two large fangs along the edges made it a formidable sight. These creatures created a clanging sound like falling rain upon a tin roof as their multi-jointed six legs sputtered across the wall. The bugs did not seem completely organic in nature. Their bodies appeared to be constructed from a black metallic substance while their movements at times looked more mechanical than biologic. They were certainly not of any species a trained entomologist could identify." (Location 743)

The final piece of the puzzle is a Biblical scholar, a Millerite, named Jonathan shows up to talk to Alex. He knows that Astipalea was the source of The Disease and he seems to have more knowledge than anyone else concerning The Disease. “Do not blind yourself with the obvious,” Jonathan rebutted, “for sometimes the answer you seek can only be found in the most inauspicious places.” He placed his prized Bible on the end table and gazed upon it as if it contained the answer. (Location 844) It appears that the Bible may contain answers they need

Now Alex must piece the clues together, wherever he can find them, to solve the clues and save the world from destruction by The Disease.

The New Reality is an exciting page turner that will keep you guessing. Since I had an advanced readers copy I'm going to have to assume any of the errors I saw were caught and corrected. Other than that Martino is a decent writer who has presented an exciting thriller that doesn't rely on a glut of adult situations and language to propel the story forward. The New Reality is the first book in a new series featuring Alex Pella, so I would imagine we will be reading more adventures in the future. This is a good airplane book. It will help you pass the time quickly but isn't too dear should you misplace it.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Light Messages via Netgalley for review purposes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Noble Hustle

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead
Knopf Doubleday: 5/6/2014

Hardcover, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385537056

The Noble Hustle is Pulitzer finalist Colson Whitehead’s hilarious memoir of his search for meaning at high stakes poker tables, which the author describes as “Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins.”
On one level, The Noble Hustle is a familiar species of participatory journalism—a longtime neighborhood poker player, Whitehead was given a $10,000 stake and an assignment from the online online magazine Grantland to see how far he could get in the World Series of Poker.  But since it stems from the astonishing mind of Colson Whitehead (MacArthur Award-endorsed!), the book is a brilliant, hilarious, weirdly profound, and ultimately moving portrayal of—yes, it sounds overblown and ridiculous, but really!—the human condition.
After weeks of preparation that included repeated bus trips to glamorous Atlantic City, and hiring a personal trainer to toughen him up for sitting at twelve hours a stretch, the author journeyed to the gaudy wonderland that is Las Vegas – the world’s greatest “Leisure Industrial Complex” — to try his luck in the multi-million dollar tournament.   Hobbled by his mediocre playing skills and a lifelong condition known as “anhedonia” (the inability to experience pleasure) Whitehead did not – spoiler alert!  - win tens of millions of dollars.  But he did chronicle his progress, both literal and existential, in this unbelievably funny, uncannily accurate social satire whose main target is the author himself.
Whether you’ve been playing cards your whole life, or have never picked up a hand, you’re sure to agree that this book contains some of the best writing about beef jerky ever put to paper.

My Thoughts:

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead is a very highly recommended, humorous and informative account of the author's foray into the world of high stakes poker games.

The premise seems simple: Whitehead was staked by a magazine to see how far he could get in the World Series of poker. But, as the title implies, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death is much more than the story of one man playing some poker games and reading some manuals to prepare himself for the big time. He discusses all sorts of other related or vaguely related topics while telling the story of his poker-playing career.

Whitehead defines "anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure," and explains that he is a citizen of "The Republic of Anhedonia." He says, "I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here." (Location 47)

Whitehead really seems to be having a great time writing this book. I truly hope it was as enjoyable to write as it is to read because this book is engrossing and funny. He points out that "In one of the fiction-writing manuals, it says that there are only two stories: a hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. I don’t know. This being life, and not literature, we’ll have to make do with this: A middle-aged man, already bowing and half broken under his psychic burdens, decides to take on the stress of being one of the most unqualified players in the history of the Big Game. A hapless loser goes on a journey, a strange man comes to gamble." (Location 79)

Although he's not a man who is generally interested in competitive sports, "Sure, now and then I mixed it up in a Who Had the Most Withholding Father contest with chums, but that’s as far as it went for me competitive sports–wise. (Location 234) he had..."been playing penny poker since college. College kids counting out chips into even stacks, opening a case of brew, busting out real-man cigars—these were the sacred props of manhood, and we were chronically low on proof."( Location 251)

This is an incredibly well-written, astute account of what players go through, or at least what he went through, in the various poker tournaments along the way, and is full of many insightful observations about poker - and life.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Remember Me Like This

Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston
Random House: 5/13/2014
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400062126

A gripping novel with the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels, Remember Me Like This introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today. With his sophisticated and emotionally taut plot and his shimmering prose, Johnston reveals that only in caring for one another can we save ourselves.
Four years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.
Then, one afternoon, the impossible happens. The police call to report that Justin has been found only miles away, in the neighboring town, and, most important, he appears to be fine. Though the reunion is a miracle, Justin’s homecoming exposes the deep rifts that have diminished his family, the wounds they all carry that may never fully heal. Trying to return to normal, his parents do their best to ease Justin back into his old life. But as thick summer heat takes hold, violent storms churn in the Gulf and in the Campbells’ hearts. When a reversal of fortune lays bare the family’s greatest fears—and offers perhaps the only hope for recovery—each of them must fight to keep the ties that bind them from permanently tearing apart.
My Thoughts:  

Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston is a highly recommended novel about a family in crisis.

Justin Campbell disappeared 4 years ago at age 11 in southern Texas. Since that time the Campbell family (parents Eric and Laura, grandfather Cecil, and younger brother Griffin) has been coasting, and slowly disintegrating under their stress and grief. They have become alienated from each other and themselves. Eric has been lying about his actions and having an affair. Laura has been working at a dry cleaners and putting in many hours volunteering at a local aquarium and tending a sick dolphin. Griffin is now 14 with his first girlfriend.

Everyone knew what they had endured, and what they had lost. "More and more Eric had the sorry sense that he and Laura were both just treading water, trying to stay afloat until Griff graduated high school. A good husband. A good father. He only knew he’d filled those roles at one time, though he could hardly recall it now." (Location 250)
Cecil is more taciturn about his emotions "This was another thing he’d learned over the years: Sometimes a man’s obligation was to tell his family what he knew of life, but more often his duty was to keep it to himself." (Location 479)

Then, miraculously, Justin is found in nearby Corpus Christi. The family must rally together to help him recover, but this requires that they confront their own issues. By all outward appearances Justin seems fine and doesn't talk about his four year ordeal but he is clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Clearly, the family’s development is arrested, too. Meanwhile his abductor, Dwight Harrell, is charged and released on bond, which sends the individuals in the family into a tail spin.

This is a capable and well-crafted debut novel by Johnston. He explores the themes of family bonds and guilt in a family that must either rebuild their lives and connections or find a new way to live in their fractured current state of existence. He allows much of the inner turmoil of some of the family members to boil and bubble over as they contemplate their next moves.

While I enjoyed Remember Me Like This quite a bit, I had a few problems with it. Opening with Eric's affair was an immediate turn-off for me. I comprehend the implications of his actions,  but it didn't need to be thrust to the forefront of the beginning of the novel. Then, after Justin comes home it seemed like there was just endless inner dialogue going on. I guess I was expecting more outward sharing and more exposure of the events that happened and how Justin could be healed along with the family.

If you like slow moving family dramas with lots of emotional inner contemplation/monologues from family members then this is a good choice for you. It's well written which should help your enjoyment enormously.

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Possibilities

The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Simon & Schuster: 5/13/2014
Hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476725796

IN THE IDYLLIC SKI TOWN of Breckenridge, Colorado, Sarah St. John is reeling. Three months ago, her twenty-two-year-old son, Cully, died in an avalanche. Though single, Sarah is hardly alone in her grief. Her father, a retiree, tries to distract her with gadgets from the QVC home shopping channel. Sarah’s best friend offers life advice by venting details of her own messy divorce. Even Cully’s father reemerges, stirring more emotions and confusion than Sarah needs. Still, Sarah feels she is facing the stages of grief—the anger, the sadness, the letting go—alone.
Barely ready to face the fact she will never again hear the swoosh of her son’s ski pants, or watch him skateboard past her window, Sarah is surprised when a strange girl arrives on her doorstep. Unexpected and unexplained, she bears a secret from Cully that could change all of their lives forever.
Kaui Hart Hemmings highlights the subtle poignancies of grief and relationships in this stunning look at people faced with impossible choices in the wake of a tragedy. With the unsentimental and refreshingly wry style famous for presenting trouble in paradise in The Descendants, Hemmings in The Possibilities considers the difficult questions of what we risk to keep our loved ones close.
My Thoughts:

The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings is a very highly recommended novel about a mother dealing with her grief.

Three months ago
43 year old Sarah St. John's 22 year old son, Cully, was killed in an avalanche. Set in Breckenridge, Colorado, where Sarah is a talk show host, she tries going back to work after a three month absences, but understands all too well that she may not be ready. She silently entreats "Please, give me strength. Strength to return, to get back to life. My plan is to move in seamlessly, drawing as little attention to myself as possible. I will reemerge wearing a figurative cap, similar to the one my twenty-two-year-old son wore, what the kids wear—a cap to hide their eyes, their face, a cap that says I’m here but I’m not here." (Location 88)

While Sarah and her father, Lyle, are trying to deal with their grief as much as they can, they chose opposing strategies. Lyle is coping through buying things off the Home Shopping Network while Sarah feels the need to cleanse her home, Cully's room. Her best friend, Suzanne, offers to help Sarah clean up and organize Cully's room, but she is also trying to cope with her own grief from her divorce and she thoughtlessly shares this, "The anger, the sadness, the letting go. We all go through these stages. Divorce is a kind of death, and... there are stages of grief. I find it comforting that we’re not alone. Big tragedies, small ones—” (Location 501)

Cully's father, Billy, is also trying to recover. Even though he and Sarah never married, they are friends. Sarah admits to him:
“It’s hard to talk to people. It’s hard to be with people. They really bother me now. People at work, friends, Miss Irony over there.”
“I don’t like people either,” he says. (Location 1299)

Sarah knows that one of the saddest parts about a death is being burdened by a lot of things our loved ones left behind. But all the time Sarah is trying to come to terms with Cully's death, she also begins to realize that she didn't actually know everything about her son's life anymore, especially when several baggies of pot and a large stash of cash is discovered. She also learns that Cully had a life quite apart from her and often called his father, Billy, just to talk. It seems that Cully shared things with Lyle and Billy that he didn't with Sarah.

While Suzanne's daughter, Morgan, plans a memorial service at the community college, Sarah and Lyle meet Kit, who also knew Cully, it seems that this family has much more to consider as they mourn the all-too-young loss of a loved one. Clearly Cully is grieved and mourned by many,

I love The Possibilities.

Hemmings did a marvelous job capturing the strong conflicting emotions during a tragedy of this magnitude. Her writing is superb and her ability to capture the raw emotions in the aftermath of tragic circumstances in a family who has no choice but to keep moving forward is commendable. There is poignant insight and a depth of understanding the grieving process present in the characters and their actions/words. This is also about the family moving on, finding their way in a world without Cully and has a few rather humorous moments too.

After suffering from two tragic deaths in my immediate family in under two months, I could understand Sarah's tortured emotions - her anger and sadness all mixed together. I am also experiencing the need to simplify, to get rid of stuff, to cleanse my life because you leave it all behind in the end. Grief is a fickle emotion; while it seems fathomless it can also take on a crass and greedy mantle. People can want a part of what might have been possible rather than looking at the possibilities in their own lives.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Simon & Schuster for review purposes.