Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
Mira: 5/3/16
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778319337

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick is a very highly recommended pleasant, yet engaging,  feel-good novel.

Arthur Pepper's wife Miriam died a year ago and the 69 year old widower is missing her desperately and clinging to the routines he has made for himself. When he decides that it is time to go through her things and donate them to a charity to help cats, he discovers a gold charm bracelet hidden in a boot. Arthur can't remember seeing the bracelet before and is intrigued by the eight charms on the bracelet and what they must have represented to his late wife.

On the chain are an elephant, tiger, book, painter's palette, ring, flower, thimble and a heart. Quite by chance, Arthur discovers a phone number on the elephant charm and ends up talking to a man in India. Miriam was a nanny for his family for several months. Once he uncovers this mystery, Arthur sets off to discover what the rest of the charms meant to Miriam. Arthur has a series of surprising encounters as he searches for the meaning behind the charms. Along the way Arthur discovers more about his wife's life before they were married and even more about himself.

This is a strong, pleasing debut novel, well written and reminiscent of Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, only a bit less serious. Fans of Harold Fry will love Arthur Pepper. Patrick keeps the tone light and the story is, well, charming. Arthur is grieving for Miriam and the pain he is going through is clearly depicted, but Patrick sees him through it, to a path of recovery, even as he discovers the meaning of each charm. This is a story of an ordinary man, but also a novel of love, hope, and healing.

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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster: 5/3/16
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501124372

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave is a very highly recommended novel set during WWII.

It is 1939 and war has been declared. Privileged young socialite, Mary North leaves her Swiss finishing school and signs up to serve. She is assigned to teach at an elementary school. When her charges are evacuated to the country, she is at loose ends until she meets Tom Shaw, who runs the school district. Mary and Tom begin dating, and he has her set up a classroom for the few children who are brought back to the city. A child she is especially devoted to is Zachary, a 10 year-old black American. Mary fights prejudice, a continuing theme throughout the novel, and tries to bravely help out the war effort.

Tom Shaw's roommate, Alistair Heath, has enlisted. He has experienced the war's brutality personally in France. When he comes home on leave before being assigned to Malta, he goes out on a double date with Tom and Mary, and Mary's friend, Hilda. The attraction between Mary and Alistair is immediate, but both of them resist it. Mary remains loyal to Tom, declaring her love.

As the war progresses, the bombing of London begins and the blitz makes no one safe. Alistair goes to Malta, where he faces even more desperate conditions and dangerous encounters. Mary and Hilda both begin to write to Alistair. They also both step up their efforts to assist during the war and personal losses and stress begins to accumulate. Everyone is tested beyond their limits.

I love the title of this book. As it says, everyone brave is forgiven, should be forgiven, as they all try to do the best they can under horrendous, stressful circumstances. Perhaps they don't always do the most laudable thing, but they are all trying to be brave and should be extended grace to forgive any indiscretions or failings. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Cleave writes in the beginning note to the reader that this story was inspired by the real-life love letters between his grandparents.

The story itself is perhaps one that could be and has been told many different times and ways. What makes this effort stand out is the sheer quality of the writing - it is incredible. I was pulled into the story immediately based on the excellence of the writing. Cleave does an extraordinary, insightful job creating his characters and exploring their innermost emotions and thoughts as they face forces beyond their control and must find a way to survive them. They are not perfect;  they have flaws and shortcomings. They are real people experiencing extreme circumstances. At the same time Cleave perfectly captures and describes the setting and the situations the characters find themselves experiencing.

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Revelation Code

The Revelation Code by Andy McDermott
Random House: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101965290
Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase Series #11

The Revelation Code by Andy McDermott is a highly recommended action/adventure thriller that is addictively entertaining.

As the eleventh book in the series featuring American archaeologist Nina Wilde and ex-SAS bodyguard Eddie Chase, most fans of the series are going to know the characters by now and understand that the action will be non-stop. "Yes, you two do seem to be an almost magnetic draw for megalomaniacs, murderers, and terrorists." Exactly!

This time Ezekiel Cross is a cult leader who thinks he has unlocked the secret of the four angels in the Bible's Book of Revelation. He has one angel, now he is searching for the other three and needs Nina's (uncooperative) help to find them. Nina is kidnapped and whisked away to the cult's secret location. Eddie is captured and held in another place, to be tortured on camera to secure Nina's continued cooperation with Cross.

Cross is a formidable opponent, but he doesn't quite know what he's up against with Nina and Eddie.

These characters are well developed at this point and their personalities are clear. There is action, but also expect humor.
"You should put all this stuff in a book," said Nina, not willing to be convinced, even though she couldn’t fault his logic. "There’s always a huge market for explanations of the Bible. Call it The Revelation Code or something, I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller."

The Revelation Code succeeds as an action/adventure thriller with a smart plot, great pacing, an evil psychotic bad guy, and globe trotting action. McDermott does an excellent job developing the plot and keeping your interest as the story unfolds.

There were two issues I had with The Revelation Code. McDermott continues to attack American evangelical Christians, which gave me several eye-rolling moments. That specific target is getting a bit old and over-played now. I wish he'd move on to a new group of evil people. But this is fiction, so I'm choosing to overlook that glaring annoyance. The other issues concerns the fact that Nina's pregnant this time around, which she mentions often. This was bothersome to some readers, but since she's a first time pregnant woman I'm choosing to to overlook her obsession with reminding everyone all the time that she is pregnant.

This is a
stuck-overnight-at-the-airport book. It will keep you awake and entertained right to the end.

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Girl Who Stayed

The Girl Who Stayed by Tanya Anne Crosby
Story Plant: 4/19/16
advanced reading copy; 292 pages
ISBN-13: 9781611882230

The Girl Who Stayed by Tanya Anne Crosby is a recommended contemporary novel of suspense.

Zoe Rutherford may ostensibly be on Sullivan's Island to clean and fix up her parents' house, which has been rented out for years, in order to sell it. She, along with her younger brother Nick, has stayed away from the house for years. But in reality she has been running away from the house and all it represents for years. It is where her family was living when her younger sister, Hannah, disappeared without a trace. It is where she endured her father's verbal and emotional abuse. It is where she witnesses her mother's withdrawal into herself. Zoe's latest- and last - violent fight with her boyfriend/abuser Chris gave her the impetus to leave him and finally do something about the house.

While there she has to face a plethora of emotions related to her father's cruelty, Hannah's disappearance, and her rocky unhealthy relationship with Chris. These are the three things that keep swirling around Zoe's head, repeatedly, obsessively, occasionally with added details. Her father never liked her. let alone loved her. His abuse became more pronounced when Zoe was 10 and Hannah 8. That is when Hannah went missing. Nick, who was 6 at the time, seems to have been immune to the abuse. Zoe still obsesses over her missing sister, an event that occurred thirty years ago, and the lack of closure.

Zoe's relationship with Chris is related to her poor self-esteem and search for love and acceptance no matter the cost, all traits that started being developed when she lived on Sullivan's Island. Now Zoe has a scar/wound on her forehead that was inflicted by Chris as she was leaving. She worries about people seeing it and wondering what caused it. A lot. She has a difficult time connecting to people. She has traumatic memories that haunt her still and some she may be suppressing.

Crosby does a wonderful job with the setting and creating the character of Zoe. I did find some of the repeated obsessing (over the scar, Hannah, Chris, her father) to be tiresome after so much reiteration. I also wondered why Zoe had such a hard time after therapy for years coming to terms with at least a few of her issues. On the other hand Crosby slowly has Zoe provide more information about bits and pieces of her childhood and her current relationship with Chris throughout the whole novel. It is also understandable that going to the island after being gone for so many years would bring back memories you thought you had banished or handled years before.

When the end comes it is startling and surprising enough to overcome some of the problems I had with The Girl Who Stayed. Up until the end there were really no startling surprises; however, the pacing was even and there were enough new facts disclosed along the way that it kept my interest. This would be a good airport or vacation book. It will keep your attention and entertain you

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

Friday, April 22, 2016

City of Secrets

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan
Penguin Publishing Group: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670785964
City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan is a very highly recommended novel about the Jewish underground resistance in Jerusalem after the Second World War.

In 1945, immediately following World War II, Jewish refugees had no place to go and tens of thousands set out for Palestine, but Jerusalem is under British occupation and control. The British have check points and actively search for any refugee there illegally. The refugees have forged papers, new identities, and try to fit in with the local population to escape arrest.

Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jew, is a survivor of the Holocaust and a refugee. He lost his whole family and beloved wife. Now Brand is driving a taxi in Jerusalem, as a cover for his involvement in the resistance group Haganah. Their goal, along with other resistance groups, is to drive the British out of Palestine and establish a Jewish state.

One of Brand's jobs is to drive fellow resistance member and survivor Eva to assignations as a prostitute. Her job is to gather information. In their off-hours, Brand and Eva are lovers. Even though they have said they will not fall in love, this relationship fills Brand with guilt. He feels like he is betraying his wife and is haunted by memories of the past.

Brand plays a small part in his resistance cell lead by a man called Asher. Members are secretive, even with each other, and information is on a need-to-know basis. The loyalty of the members is often in question within the group. As the danger seems to loom larger and the resistance efforts become more daring, Brand continues to follow Asher's plans, but begins to suspect that he is being used - a small cog in bigger plans.

Brand is a lonely, woeful man of few words. He ponders events of the present and past. He is tortured by his survival. He wants to be the good, honest man he was at one time. He has found himself part of a movement where he has no control. This dark, noirish novel is one of intrigue, certainly, but at its heart it is a much more poignant novel of one man's struggle to make sense of all the brutal parts of his life that have stripped him of so much. He has been left with the skills he possesses. He keeps track of where he is and how to get through the city. He is a good mechanic.

O'Nan is a masterful writer. The prose is sparse, precise; many details are implied and some rely on an understanding of history and how it repeats itself, often with similar actions wrapped in different verbiage. This is the story of one man, but the moral implications and questions it raises are profoundly tied into humanity itself. This is a novel that you will remember not for its verbose prose, but its depiction of one man who survived the unthinkable to find himself in a specific place during a chaotic period of time.

I simply can't quite explain the quiet strength of this novel. Don't look at the number of pages. This is a perfect novel for those who enjoy historical fiction, as the setting is well researched and the characters are perfectly placed in this specific time and place. But it is ultimately about so much more. This is a memorable novel and one that will stay with you after you have read it.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group for review purposes.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Art of Calm

The Art of Calm: Photographs and Wisdom to Balance Your Life
by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
National Geographic Society: 3/29/16
hardcover; 215 pages
ISBN-13: 9781426216374

The Art of Calm: Photographs and Wisdom to Balance Your Life by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh is a highly recommended book with a perfect balance of photographs and inspirational quotes, good advice, and even recipes. This is the kind of book you would give a good female friend, using the ribbon page marker to mark an especially pertinent quote or tip for her, to let her know you understand, value, and treasure her.

Actually, I'd have to make many more ribbon page markers beyond the one affixed to the spine of the book. There were so many good quotes and wonderful advice.

I love: "Women need real moments of solitude and self-reflection to balance out how much of ourselves we give away." Barbara De Angelis (pg. 21)
I could mark the quote: "When you feel overwhelmed repeat this to yourself until you remember that it is true: You'll get it all done. You always have."(pg. 46)
I especially love: "After all those years as a woman hearing 'not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not this enough, not that enough' almost overnight I woke up one morning and thought, 'I'm enough.' "  Anna Quindlen (pg. 184)
Or I'd  marked for myself that peace is found in forgiveness, or celebrating what people accomplish rather than finding fault, or how I'm are not responsible for other adults emotional lives or...
You get the idea.

But I'd likely put that one affixed ribbon marker where it is now: "Start with this thought, every morning, even when your alarm goes off too early: Every day is a gift." (pg. 202)

There are also included wonderful little tidbits of goodness, like recipes included for a facial, and bath salts, and vanilla milk, and tips about what you should have on your bookshelf or in your closet or stocked in your pantry for a quick pasta dinner. There are several pages that give supportive advice to working women and mothers with children.  Or maybe I'd mark the page letting my friend know that sometimes it is okay to eat chocolate chip cookies.

Let's not forget the photographs either. They simply exude serenity and help encourage a calm, peaceful, soothing demeanor. They are gorgeous and compliment the text that accompanies them splendidly. 
The Art of Calm would be a sublime gift for others - or yourself! (And it's paperback sized, so it would easily slip into a bag to take with you!)

I'll leave you with this advice that made me laugh with delight: "Make a playlist of your favorite songs from high school and sing along at the top of your lungs while you remember what it was like the have real problems." (pg 207) Yes!

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
 Rebecca Ascher-Walsh for review purposes.


Monday, April 18, 2016

The Alaskan Laundry

The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780544325265

The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones is a very highly recommended novel about a woman who escapes to Alaska and works hard to find peace and her place in the world. This is a not-to-be-missed debut featuring a strong woman who learns to face her problems head-on and overcome them.

Tara Marconi has run away from Philadelphia, her father Urbano, the family bakery, boxing, and her boyfriend Connor. She has traveled to a remote, rugged Alaskan island called "the Rock" aka Archangel Island, with plans to work for a year at a fish hatchery there. After a rough start she works her way through the commercial fishing industry and stays more than the original planned one year. Tara finds herself drawn to an old WWII tug boat that is for sale and she makes it her goal to earn enough money to buy the boat and a place to call her own.

Tara makes friends and meets an odd assortment of individuals involved with commercial fishing. She fights her way through the tough, brutal jobs and her anger toward her father, as well as the depression she had fallen into in Philly. She also has to come to terms with her mother's death, memories from her childhood, and an incident she has never talked about that scarred her as a teen. Tara regains her confidence and discovers a sense of self and purpose - not without struggles, bumps and bruises- through hard work and raw determination.

Her friend tells her that we are put on this earth to learn to love honestly and cleanly and people are drawn to living in Alaska to help them achieve this:
"'So we’re all tumbling around in the Alaskan laundry out here. If you do it right you get all that dirt washed out, then turn around and start making peace with the other sh*t. Maybe even make a few friends along the way.' He winked at her.
'I’m trying,' she said."

I found The Alaskan Laundry to be very well written. The narrative consists of short chapters that mirror the independent steps Tara is making toward self-discovery and true empowerment. Brendan Jones' real life experiences and knowledge of the commercial fishing industry makes this novel even more compelling to read. You can tell that he knows what he is writing about. His descriptions of the people, the setting, the landscape, and even the smells are pitch perfect in establishing a real sense of place.

I'm glad I read this coming-of-age story, even if I was at times telling Tara in my head, "Oh no, sweetie, don't do that..." Tara is an imperfect protagonist, but you will be rooting for her, hoping she does find the peace and sense of self and purpose that she needs as she figures out how to navigate her way and work at various difficult jobs. The Alaskan Laundry is one of those novels that will stay with you.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review purposes.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Random House: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101886694

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel is a highly recommended SF novel about finding parts for a giant robot left by aliens.

The novel is mainly told through transcripts of recorded interviews between an anonymous interrogator/examiner who is questioning the actions and thoughts of the other characters. He is clearly powerful and able to muster unlimited funds and resources to accommodate the participants in the search for the giant robot.

Oh - there is eventually a giant robot, only the parts/body pieces of the robot are buried in various places around the world. The very first part, a giant hand, was discovered when the earth opened up into a 50 foot deep square shaped hole in Deadwood, S.D., and 11 year-old Rose fell into it. She was found in the palm of a giant hand laying at the bottom of the glowing turquoise hole which was lined with 16 panels that have glowing symbols etched into them. The hand and panels are whisked away and hidden by the government.

That little girl grows up to be Dr. Rose Franklin, who is now the lead scientist on a team who is studying the hand and searching for other body parts after the forearm to the hand is unexpectedly found in Turkey. She figures out a way to search for the other body parts. Brought onto the recovery team are Warrant Officers Kara Resnik and Ryan Mitchell. Later Vincent Couture, a linguist, is added and Alyssa Papantoniou, a geneticist.

The mysterious interviewer brings out the best and the worse in these people as he quizzes them about their work and their thoughts. He is also, always, several steps ahead of them and often it becomes clear that he has his own secret agenda and plans that they know nothing about. He can be very formal, a little sarcastic, sometimes threatening, and is not easily shaken. We have no idea who he works for and why he has so much power and access to important people in very high places.

As the various pieces of the giant robot are found and assembled, no one has specifically addressed the purpose of said alien device and the meaning of it for humanity. Who left it? When exactly were the pieces buried? Why was it left? What is its purpose?

The characters are basically well developed, considering the format used to tell the narrative. The interview technique doesn't allow for minutia or many of the little details that make a character more real to the reader and allow a personal connection. They are an interesting collection of people, though, and that helps. The interview/journal entry technique certainly made the pacing of the novel move along swiftly and ultimately, although not perfect, it did work on many levels.

The ending makes abundantly clear that apparently this is the first in a series of novels and there will be at least a second novel, if not more.
A firm 4.5 stars, but I just can't make myself round up here. Perhaps the sequel will change that.

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Decent Proposal

The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan
HarperCollins: 4/5/16
advanced readers edition; 320 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062391629

The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan is a highly recommended light hearted L.A. boy-and-girl-are-paid-to-meet story.

Richard Baumbach and Elizabeth Santiago are strangers who have been presented with a more than decent proposal through a lawyer representing an anonymous benefactor. They are being offered five hundred thousand dollars each if they will meet once a week and spend two hours together, talking, for one full calendar year. It is an offer that is legit, with a legal contract, which they both find hard to refuse.

Richard is a struggling, broke, frequently hungover Hollywood producer with a large credit card debt to pay off. He's a charming, optimistic, handsome 29 year old whose best friend is Mike (Michaela). The offer, what he calls starts calling the #DecentProposal (which Mike reduces to the DP) on social media will allow him to help finance his production company and it might provide him with a good plot for a future project. It could be fun too, an adventure.

Elizabeth, 33, is a serious, driven lawyer on her way to becoming a partner in the law firm. She is known around her law firm as "La Máquina" (the Machine) for billable hours and ability to focus on the task at hand without distraction. She doesn't do social media or TV.  Running the numbers, the proposal will more than compensate her for her time and allow her to help a homeless man, Orpheus Washington, that she has befriended.

The two agree to the proposal and first meet at an In-N-Out Burger. It becomes clear that, while they both might like In-N-Out, they are also vastly different people whose lives and interests are quite disparate. If they are to survive 52 weekly two hour meetings comprised of one-on-one discussions, they need to find some creative plan to help facilitate it. The ingeniously decide to make it a book and film discussion club. One week they will read chapters and discuss a classic book under Elizabeth's guidance and the next week they will watch and scrutinize a movie of Richard's choice.

The Decent Proposal  is satisfying on several levels.
It succeeds as a romantic comedy with elements of a mystery. The writing is quite good in this debut novel. It flows well and the plot is well paced and even. The contrast between the two main characters is well defined and their interaction with each other is believable. While I'm not normally known for reading novels described as romantic, The Decent Proposal is a comfortable, comedic, entertaining novel rather than a heavy romantic romp.

It is very clearly set in a current Los Angeles that will be recognizable to those who know L.A. and its environs. Donovan captures the culture and life style of those in the entertainment industry. He contrasts those in the entertainment industry to those who are native Californians (Elizabeth grew up in South Central) and not transplants from other parts of the country. In addition, the choice of movies and books the two discuss is interesting. Don't expect any great literary or cinematic discussion as a part of the novel, just the titles are provided as part of the plot. They serve to highlight the many differences between Richard and Elizabeth.

I had a few minor issues, especially with the ending. It felt a bit abrupt and awkward compared to the rest of the narrative. But don't let that stop you from reading The Decent Proposal. This would be a perfect choice for a summer vacation novel. It is light hearted escapism with some self-discovery and personal growth included in the parry between characters.

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

War Hawk

War Hawk by James Rollins, Grant Blackwood
HarperCollins: 4/19/16
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062135278
Tucker Wayne Series #2

War Hawk by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood is a very highly recommended action/adventure thriller.

Former Army Ranger Tucker Wayne and his K-9 partner Kane, a seventy-pound Belgian Malinois, are vacationing in Montana, traveling together and trying to relax and mentally recover and heal after their recent military action. They immediately encounter trouble that showcases the close bond between man and dog - including Tucker's fighting abilities and and Kane's ability to follow Tucker's orders and assist him.

After that, the two return to their motel. Tucker is startled to see a former lover and her son hiding in the shadows, waiting for their return. Tucker was close to Jane Sabatello 6 years ago when she was an Intelligence Analyst with the 75th Rangers. Currently she is working for the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). The problem is she knows that someone wants her dead. Colleagues of hers have been dying and she knows she is the next target. She wants Tucker to help her and another former teammate of theirs, Sandy, who is also a target.

The project Jane and Sandy were working on was classified. Since the two women were working for different departments/branches, Jane doesn't know the final result of the project. It appears to be privately funded. She's asking Tucker to help them and find out what they were working on, where secrecy is ensured by the death of the team members.

The trail leads from the deep South to other countries. Tucker manages to recruit a ragtag team of specialists along the way to help him uncover what is clearly a global conspiracy being instigated by a megalomaniac madman who is changing the course of modern warfare using drones.

The opening prologue for War Hawk doesn't make sense right away, but it is nonetheless gripping and firmly establishes that this is going to be a military based action/adventure thriller. Once the action starts at the prologue it is basically non-stop to the end. It is also timely with all the current discussions about the use of drones. I've said it before, and I'm going to repeat myself here, but I appreciate the fact that Rollins treats his readers with respect and a nod to their intelligence and ability to comprehend a complex plot based on current developments.

Tucker Wayne and Kane are great characters with a close bond. Rollins and Blackwood do a great job developing their characters and establishing their relationship with each other. I'll have to admit tearing up and holding my breath over a few Kane scenes. (What a good boy!) Some of the other characters are not as developed, but it is good to see some strong female characters working as equals alongside the males.

This is the second in a series that began with The Kill Switch, which I haven't read, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of War Hawk. You will have to suspend your disbelief over several scenes, but, honestly, I expected that would be the case and had no problem doing it. Perfect stuck-over-night-at-the-airport book.

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

Friday, April 8, 2016

67 Shots

 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means
Da Capo Press: 4/12/16

eBook review copy; 288 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780306823794

67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means is a very highly recommended balanced account of the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970 when four students died.

May 2020 will mark a half a century since the shootings at Kent State. The tragedy of that day and the events over the three preceding days should be noted by us today. It is rather startling to me to accept that some people are oblivious about what transpired in 1970.As Winston Churchill said, "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it."

As Means summarizes it: "The times, the war, the ’60s, a growing generational divide, the Age of Aquarius, and the Age of Hate all collided at Kent State University at 12:24 p.m. on May 4, 1970, and four flesh-and-blood human beings - sons and daughters, brothers and sisters - did not survive the wreckage."

There were three days of protests by students before the shootings. On Friday, May 1st, the day after President Nixon's address to the nation where he said that the Vietnam War would not be winding down, but instead would be expanded into Cambodia, a small group of antiwar protestors staged a demonstration on the campus of Kent State. Later that night, fueled by the 3.2 beer available to 18 year-olds at that time, students instigated a riot in downtown Kent where businesses were damaged. The citizens of the town were understandably upset and concerned for their safety.

A small group of students were equally upset and continued their protests. The ROTC building on campus was burned down the next day. The small force of police available was unable to protect the firemen who came to put out the fire. Students were throwing rocks at them and attacking the hoses, so the firemen retreated. This led to the governor calling in the Ohio National Guard. Once the National Guard was in full force throughout the town, but especially on campus, a face-off seemed inevitable.

Kent State was put under military control and a curfew was put into effect. Helicopters were flying, spotlighting any student out, not following the curfew. During the day, students were protesting, throwing rocks, feces, bags of urine, etc. at the guardsmen, many of which were their age. As the tensions mounted and everyone, guardsmen and students were suffering from a lack of sleep, a confrontation was inevitable.

What was known to everyone is that a group of students were planning a protest rally at noon on the commons on Monday, May 4th. Rather than an anti-war rally, the protest became a protest against the National  Guard presence on campus. The result was, as described by Means in the synopsis, "both unavoidable and preventable: unavoidable in that all the discordant forces of a turbulent decade flowed together on May 4, 1970, on one Ohio campus; preventable in that every party to the tragedy made the wrong choices at the wrong time in the wrong place."

"At midday on May 4, 1970, after three days of protests, several thousand students and the Ohio National Guard faced off at opposite ends of the grassy campus Commons at Kent State University. At noon, the Guard moved out. Twenty-four minutes later, Guardsmen launched a 13-second, 67-shot barrage that left four students dead and nine wounded, one paralyzed for life."

Means does an excellent job presenting and taking all the facts, information, memories, viewpoints, and events of those few days in May into account and places everything in the context of the times with objectivity in an equitable manner. It is an even-handed overview of all the details and events that led up to the shootings, and the aftermath. There are extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Da Capo Press for review purposes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Be Frank with Me

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
HarperCollins: 2/2/16
Hardcover, 304 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062413710

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is a very highly recommended novel about a reclusive writer, her exceptional son, and the assistant sent to help her.

After writing a beloved award winning novel decades ago at age 19, M. M. “Mimi” Banning is a recluse who never published another word. Now, after losing all her money, she has to write another book.  She contacts her editor, Isaac Vargas, and says she will write a new book, but has two stipulations. First, she wants a large advance. Second the assistant who will be sent at the publisher's expense to ensure she meets her deadline must be able to drive, cook, clean, be sane, not an English major or Ivy Leaguer, and be good with kids.

Vargas sends Alice Whitley, a 24 year old accounting major from Nebraska. Alice has been working as an assistant to Mr. Vargas and he thinks she is the perfect candidate to keep an eye on acerbic Mimi and take care of her son, Frank. Once Alice arrives, Mimi insists on calling her Penny, because she "looks like a Penny," and Mimi locks herself in her den to write. Alice becomes the care taker for nine year old Frank.

Frank has a couple rules, starting with don't touch his things and don't touch him without permission. Clearly he is an intelligent boy with some form of Autism. He enjoys dressing in complete outfits, usually based on movies from the 1930's. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of older movies and a photographic memory for all manner of facts. Frank is partly charming and partly challenging. Life isn't easy for this displaced nine year old who requires constant supervision, rarely sleeps, and meets regularly with his psychiatrist. There are many items that Alice must keep from Frank, like scissors and matches, while she must also accept the fact that he will go through her things and is light fingered.

Alice becomes increasingly curious about Frank. Who is his father? How does the mysterious piano teacher Xander fit into the picture? And is Mimi really writing her novel behind that door?

Johnson delivers a wonderful debut novel with Be Frank with Me. The narrative will fully engage you. It's funny, poignant, and a satisfying story that will have you racing to see what happens next. The writing is pitch perfect as Johnson captures precocious Frank and matter-of-fact Alice. I finished Be Frank with Me in one sitting, which signifies Johnson's ability to write a novel that will hold and keep your attention.

While on the surface Be Frank with Me seems like a light-hearted, fun read, but there is much more to this novel should you care to ponder it. Johnson provides some real depth in her characters. They are all unique individuals with a backstory and well developed. I did question why the school wasn't helping Frank more or offering supportive services when he'd clearly qualify for some support, but I was willing to suspend my questions about this.

Monday, April 4, 2016


Summerland by Michael Chabon
HarperCollins: 4/12/16 (eBook)
eBook review copy; 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062418081

Summerland by Michael Chabon is a highly recommended novel for YA readers, but enjoyable for readers of all ages. It was originally published in 2002. This edition represents a new paperback release of the classic fantasy story with a new introduction by Chabon on the origins of Summerland

Ethan Feld is not a good baseball player. In fact, he's the worst baseball player on Clam Island, Washington, where Ethan and his father moved after the death of his mother. Much to his surprise, Ringfinger Brown, a baseball scout, recruits Ethan. He takes him to Summerland, a world that only Ethan can save.

I originally reviewed Summerland in 2009 and agree with my original assessment:
"The thing is, since Chabon wrote Summerland, the characters are well developed, and the descriptions can be exquisite. There is a considerable amount of wit and humor in the story. All in all, I think adults may end up enjoying Summerland more than children..."

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

Friday, April 1, 2016

Among the Dead and Dreaming

Among the Dead and Dreaming by Samuel Ligon
Leapfrog Press: 4/5/16
eBook review copy; 240 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781935248781

Among the Dead and Dreaming by Samuel Ligon is a highly recommended novel that looks at events through the perspective of multiple characters. The novel opens with a tragic accident involving Cynthia and Kyle. The two are old friends, but currently the significant others of Mark and Nikki. Their deaths bring Mark and Nikki into an uneasy relationship.

Nikki has been running since she left her home at seventeen. She has ran from one relationship to another and across the country. When she meets Cash in Austin, it may have been the best and worst mistake she ever made. The worst mistake because Cash was domineering and controlling. He became dangerous and a stalker when Nikki tried to leave him. She kills him and escapes. Only she knows that the best thing that happened to her, her beloved daughter Alina, is Cash's child, something she will never tell Alina about.

Now Cash's brother, Burke, is out of prison. He has found Nikki's phone number, photos of her and Cash, and he's fantasized about her to extraordinary creepy levels. He is losing control over reality, but it looks like he is going to be stalking Nikki with dangerous intent, seeking revenge.

Mark is full of regret over the loss of Cynthia and suspects that something was going on between her and Kyle. He's mired in reflecting upon his relationship with her and speculating over what might have been. He ponders his past political career. He thinks he sees some of his own distress reflected in Nikki and thinks he should talk to her about his suspicions, which opens them up to an uneasy relationship.

Alina, thirteen, knows that Kyle loved Nikki, but Nikki didn't reciprocate the same level of love and devotion. Nikki always holds some part of her back. Alina, however, adored Kyle and can't believe he is gone. She's angry at her mother's choices and her clinging to Alina.

Ligon has these characters and others who were involved during various parts of their stories chime in with their side of things and what they think. This is not confusing because each chapter opens with the name of the character speaking. It makes for an interesting story since it is told through the perspective of the individuals involved. While one person may assign a specific motive to another person's actions, that isn't always the case. Sometimes the truth lies somewhere in-between.

All of these characters are searching for love: the love of a mother for a child (even if it becomes clinging and overbearing); the love between men and women; the love between friends; the love lost; the love sought. Many of them are scared of love even while they seek it. They don't really know what it is they want. They all seek a place of acceptance and safety, however unlikely it seems.

There is a real tension that builds as Burke becomes increasingly obsessed with Nikki - and unhinged from reality. This is another novel that isn't necessarily an easy novel to read. There are adult situations and violent scenes. The fear in these characters becomes palatable; they fear for their futures, over their past, and what will happen next.  Nikki, Alina, and Mark are so lost and searching for some stability that you can't help but feel for them and hope they survive the coming encounter.

The fact that Ligon manages to give all these characters a different voice and point of view in the narrative is a good indication of his skill and artistry. The story flows smoothly and deftly, even when the scene is grim, somber, or disturbing.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Leapfrog Press for review purposes.