Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lucifer's Banker

Lucifer's Banker by Bradley C. Birkenfeld
Greenleaf Book Group: 11/1/16
eBook review copy; 344 pages
ISBN-13: 9781626343719

Lucifer's Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank Secrecy by Bradley C. Birkenfeld is a recommended account of how one man took on the Swiss banking industry.

Working his way up in the banking industry, Bradley Birkenfeld was a success. He lived and worked in Switzerland as a private banker for the largest bank in the world, UBS. UBS specialized in providing the ultrawealthy the way to hide their money, especially from paying taxes. Birkenfeld knew how the game worked, with its secret numbered accounts and the tactics used to make sure their clients could have access to their millions with no penalties.

It came to his attention that UBS had buried deep in the bank's files an official policy in place to cover their backs if any government came asking about taxes. Birkenfeld realized that the policy would throw him and his co-workers under the bus while protecting the bank and the managers.  That was when he decided to take matters into his own hands and blow the whistle himself, telling the US government how the Swiss banking industry worked.

Birkenfeld brought his information to the Department of Justice first and was treated like he was wasting their time. The part about the Department of Justice is going to anger you, but it shouldn't really, given current events. It is no longer about justice but political maneuvering, Washington insiders, and cronyism. When Birkenfeld took his secrets to the US Senate, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service, he was finally taken seriously and action was taken.

Then, and this presents a perfect example of why the Department of Justice needs to be gutted and overhauled: "at the same time he was cooperating with the US Government, the Department of Justice was still doggedly pursuing him. He was arrested and served thirty months in federal prison." Birkenfeld writes: "The US Department of Justice was supposed to welcome me, protect me, thank me for being the first and only Swiss private banker to crack that impenetrable shell of Swiss secrecy and corruption, to ensure that American taxpayers would be cheated no more. But instead, the DOJ had reached out for my treasure trove with one slimy hand, and slapped cuffs on me with the other. Scumbags."

But Birkenfeld got the last laugh. "When he emerged, the Internal Revenue Service gave him a whistle-blower award for $104 million, the largest such reward in history." This is a fascinating account of inside the secret Swiss banking industry and our government’s justice system.

Lucifer's Banker is written in a conversational style as if Birkenfeld was sitting down with you telling his life's story. It does have rather a 007 feel to it, which is alluded to several times.

I guess the biggest problem for me, as a female reviewer, is it is also a bit too chauvinistic. There is a sexist boy's club vibe reflected in comments throughout the book - like older 007 movies - and numerous times beautiful "girls" are mentioned as sex objects and play things. Comments like "gorgeous girls who care only about pleasing you and having a great time" and this not-very-amusing-to-me story: "I’d decided to take a companion along. Marketa was a bar hostess in Prague—tall, slim, pretty, and just turned twenty-two. She’d never been to the United States, so my invitation to fly business class, party in Hollywood, and then see some hot lava put a smile on her face. She was a sweet girl, innocent in many ways, and she gasped when I booked us into the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Did we have a good time? Let’s just say there’s nothing quite like gratitude sex. I called her my 'Czech Mate,' which she didn’t get, but I amused myself."
Not so cool. Not so amusing.

So, in the end this is an interesting book and a riveting account about whistle blowing on the Swiss banking industry and corruption in the Department of Justice. It's also written, in my opinion, for male readers or stories like the one above, and there are more than one, would have been left out. To reflect this I left a star out and lowered my rating. It would be a much better book had the stories of sexual escapades been left out and Birkenfeld concentrated on telling us the important facts with some measure of acknowledgment that women who were not interested in "gratitude sex" would be reading the book too.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Whole Town's Talking

The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg  
Random House: 11/29/16
eBook review copy; 432 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781400065950

The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg is a highly recommended sweet, charming novel that follows the residents of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, from 1889 to 2021. Elmwood Springs was founded by Swedish immigrants, specifically Lordor Nordstrom. At the beginning of The Whole Town's Talking the citizens in the area, before they are even officially a town, mark out on a hill where the cemetery is going to be and choose an area for their family plots and final resting places. They name it Still Meadows, which it is anything but still or restful, as you will hear in the future.

Lordor advertises for a wife and Katrina replies, a young Swedish woman living in Chicago. They exchange pictures and letters. The women in the town try to help Lordor's cause, assuring Katrina that "Lordor is a good eater and has all his teeth" and that it "is not like Sweden here. We do not let the men rule with an iron hand. We are all free American women in Missouri." Katrina accepts his invitation to come to Missouri and Lordor pleads with her to "Please hurry. All the ladies around here are busy trying to improve me as well. By the time you get here, I may be over-improved and not much good for anything.

After the opening Flagg introduces us to the citizens and families of Elmwood Springs and follows the happenings decade by decade. It's an epic novel for those who like sentimental lighthearted novels that are extremely well written. Flagg has always been a wonderful story-teller and she brings that innate gift to bear on The Whole Town's Talking. It is a pleasant, feel-good story, but it is also a witty, funny tour through the decades with the citizens of Elmwood Springs. There are a few serious and sad moments, but the citizens pull together and keep a positive outlook on life.

Soon enough readers will learn that once you have reached your final resting place in Still Meadows, you may be resting, but the meadows are anything but still as those interred there are able to talk to each other until they mysteriously seem to just quietly disappear. Just as the community below the hill is active, the discussions are also ongoing on the hill top. I especially appreciated the thoughts at the end from Macky who is worried about the country because he felt something was rotting from the inside, a slow decay of what was right and wrong. If you would find the idea of souls living on talking to each other objectionable, then you might want to skip this one. If that isn't going to bother you, then this is a pleasant comforting stroll through the decades with the citizens of a small town.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Animators

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Random House: 1/31/2017
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812989281

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker is very highly recommended. This is a powerful novel that explores the creative process and coming to terms with your past. It's about friendship and secrets. It's about ambition and self-doubt. It's about fame and dark secrets. It's about gifts and inner demons. Expect language and self-destructive behavior. It is heartbreaking, funny,  scathingly brilliant and one of the best novels I've read this year. This is a debut novel and Whitaker just made a fan.

Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses met in a college art class and became fast friends as well as artistic partners. They both came from a white trash background, especially to their elitist college classmates. Sharon's family is in rural Kentucky while Mel's is from Florida, where her mom is in prison. The two, who seem to be opposites - Mel is gay and outgoing while Sharon is straight and reticent - share a love of comics and drawing. They become animators. Even though they may be motivated by different desires, together they struggle and drink and smoke and work hard. After a decade collaborating, their first full length movie, Nashville Combat, is released and they are the recipients of a prestigious grant.

Nashville Combat
is autobiographical and based on Mel's childhood. The fame and notoriety that follows their success leads to self-destructive behavior on Mel's part and self-doubt for Sharon. Their collaboration and friendship seems to be on the verge of imploding when a tragedy happens that pulls the two back to an understanding of what they mean to each other. After secrets Sharon has been keeping are revealed, they understand how important it is for them to continue working together. But this is just the start to their story...

There is so much more to The Animators than this brief description. That is only the beginning. I would say it is a coming-of-age novel, but it's more a coming-to-terms-with-a-crappy-childhood novel. But it is also about the secrets we keep, secrets from our past, family secrets, and how long some of us carry the burden of those secrets. It questions which relationships can survive revelations? How much do you have to sacrifice for your art?

The writing is exceptional, extraordinary, amazing! All the characters are well developed, even those briefly introduced. Sharon and Mel will become real to you. You will know these women and their inner turmoil. Your fingers will feel sore and you'll swear they are ink stained. You'll have an urge to smoke. You'll laugh at the jokes. And your heart will break. The settings are just as finely drawn and skillfully described. Whether in Brooklyn or Florida or Kentucky, you will know where you are. Whitaker captures the ambience; you feel the atmosphere, smell the odors and hear the defining sounds.

The Animators is an exceptional novel.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author. 

And I see something I have never seen before in Mel: self-removal. Inside, she has fled. The ability of anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of something violent to grasp the details that remind them of their humiliation - smells, colors, sounds - and blur these details so that they become foreign, someone else’s property. It is a cultivated skill, requiring time, experience, unspeakable mental real estate. It is, for the desperate, the only chance to leave what happened with the part of yourself that is still yours. Children learn it. Boys, but more often, and more closely, girls. When girls learn it, they learn it for the rest of their lives, inventing two separate planes on which they exist - the life of the surface, presented for others, and the life forever lived on the inside, the one that owns you. They will never forget how to make themselves disappear. To blend into the air.  

She turns, giving me her ultimate nonplussed look. “You may not know this about yourself,” she says, “but you’ve got a serious gift for self-containment. You run a pretty tight f*ckin ship, presentation-wise. Kind of freaks people out.” 

Ice and Bone

Ice and Bone by Monte Francis
SceneBooks Inc.: 4/19/16
eBook review copy; 390 pages
ISBN-13: 9781942266396

Ice and Bone: Tracking An Alaskan Serial Killer by Monte Francis is a highly recommended true crime novel.

"In the Fall of 2000, in Anchorage, Alaska, a series of murders captured headlines, stoking fears a serial killer was on the loose. Six women, mostly Alaska Natives, were found slain, all under similar circumstances. An anonymous tip led investigators to a thuggish, young drug dealer, who would eventually implicate himself in three of the women’s deaths. But it wasn’t until the disappearance of a well-loved nurse psychologist seven years later, and the discovery of her body in the remote wilderness of Wasilla, that two astute female detectives would finally bring the murderer to justice."

Joshua Wade was likely responsible for the murders of more women (and maybe even some men) than the crimes he was officially charged with. Wade was incarcerated for life in 2010 after the 2007 murder of Mindy Schloss. It is horrifying that he was charged with the 2000 murder of Della Brown but was acquitted because the evidence was circumstantial. If a better case were presented lives could have been saved. It is to the credit of everyone investigating the murder of Schloss that Wade was finally caught and put away for good.

Francis concentrates on the crimes and the investigations, but he also shows how the family and friends of his victims were affected by his horrendous actions. I do wish some more focus on the Native Alaskan population and how they are victimized, but, perhaps that is another book. Ice and Bone focuses on the murders of Brown and Schloss, but there is a mention that he may have murdered other women and men. In the end it is satisfying to know Wade is locked up for life.

The writing is clear and concise even when the information imparted is complicated and convoluted, especially with Wade's friends talking and backtracking about what he said and what happened. Expect lots of language. Francis does an admirable job presenting it all and adds background information that is pertinent. It really is a heartbreaking but chilling account of a killer and the sometimes frustrating investigation that finally put him away. (And for those of you who read Ice and Bone: Could the young woman who befriended Wade be any dumber? "I was young so I didn't understand the terminology 'acquitted for murder.' " She gives new meaning to the phrase: "Dumb as a box of rocks.")

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Slipping by Lauren Beukes
Tachyon Publications: 11/29/16
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616962401

Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes is a highly recommended collection of 26 previously published pieces. The majority are fiction, with five nonfiction essays at the end of the collection. As with any compilation, some of the works appealed to me and felt more successful than others, but there is no selected work included that doesn't belong. There are several selections that could easily be the start of a novel. My absolute top favorites were Slipping, Smileys, The Green, and Litmash, but there are several others I also liked quite a bit. All the works are, to some extent, about the darkness inside people's souls. They are all well-written and powerful.

Contents include:
Fiction: Muse; Slipping; Confirm/Ignore; Branded; Smileys; Princess; My Insect Skin; Parking; Pop Tarts; The Green; Litmash; Easy Touch; Alegbra; Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs; Dear Mariana; Riding with the Dream Patrol; Unaccounted; Tankwa-Karoo; Exhibitionist; Dial Tone; Ghost Girl
Nonfiction: Adventures in Journalism; All the Pretty Corpses; Judging Unity; Inner City; On Beauty: A Letter to My Fiver-Year-Old Daughter
To assist those who need it, there is a Glossary which could help those who need it with some of the South African words in the collection

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I am She Treads Softly!

I wanted to let my readers know that I am now hosting my blog at:

Nothing will be changing with my blog and the content. I simple decided that since January will mark ten years of blogging book reviews, it was time to officially own the domain She Treads Softly.

My blogger site (link below) is connected to and will redirect you to my domain at the above website.

Thanks for reading my reviews over these many years and hopefully for many years in the future.

She Treads Softly



Moonglow by Michael Chabon
HarperCollins: 11/22/16
eBook review copy: 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062225559

Moonglow by Michael Chabon is a highly recommended fictional nonfiction account of his grandfather's life. It is: "A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional nonfiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir. Chabon tells us right at the start in an Author's Note that: "In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts, except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Whatever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and the interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon."

In 1989 Chabon traveled to see his
terminally ill grandfather. Although he was a terse man of few words his whole life, the strong painkillers he was on helped him overcome this and he shared his memories and stories about his life with his grandson. What results is a tour de force of a speculative family biography. "It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and marriage and desire, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at midcentury, and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of keeping secrets and telling lies. It is a portrait of the difficult but passionate love between the narrator’s grandfather and his grandmother, an enigmatic woman broken by her experience growing up in war-torn France."

It is a family history written as a novel, or a "speculative autobiography." The narrative doesn't follow a continuous timeline, but, rather, jumps back and forth in time, much like what would occur when a dying man is telling stories about his past to a grandson. Locations range from South Philadelphia to a Florida retirement village to Germany to New York’s Wallkill prison. This is the span of a lifetime reduced to a novel. His grandfather wanted him to write it all down and make his life mean something. There are also several poignant stories dealing with Chabon's grandmother, who suffered from voices and visions. Her mental illness was evident to her husband and daughter, Chabon's mother.

The writing is outstanding, as one would expect from Chabon. The characters are all  well-developed and carefully depicted as real people with flaws and foibles but memorable. While telling his grandfather's story, he carefully provides historical details to set the the time and place. There is a lot of storytelling here with some digressions with related, relevant information, but the end result is worth working through the extra information. 

It's a genre bending novel - is it fiction or nonfiction or a combination of both? Perhaps there are kernels of truth with lavish extra embellishments?

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Redshirts by John Scalzi
Tom Doherty Associates: 1/15/13
Trade paperback; 317 pages
ISBN-13: 9780765334794

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a very highly recommended sci-fi spoof; I heart Redshirts with all the hearty heartness a heart can heart. (Borrowed from Scalzi) Why on earth did I wait so long to read Redshirts? There were several parts that left me laughing so hard I was gasping for breath with tears in my eyes. (The magic box, pants.... okay, let me get it back together again.) Redshirts deserved the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel.


It should be almost a given fact that anyone who would want to read Redshirts knows that if you wore a redshirt, you were a disposable character in the original Star Trek series.

"Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It's a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on 'Away Missions' alongside the starship's famous senior officers." Immediately, Dahl notices that the experienced crew members avoid Captain Abernathy, science officer Q'eeng, and astrogator Kerensky, especially if their appearance has anything to do with finding members for an away mission. It is well known that every away mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces and at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Oddly enough, Captain Abernathy, Q'eeng, and Kerensky always survive. Although Kerensky is often wounded, he always recovers remarkably quickly.

The lower ranking crew members all know that in order to survive, you must not go on an away mission. Even more startling is what Dahl discovers through the ship's hermit, Jenkins. Once he and his trusted colleagues figure out what is really going on they need to devise a plan to stop it and save more redshirts from certain death.

The story of Dahl on the Intrepid is told in the first two-thirds of the novel. This is followed by three codas set in 2012 which finish the story.

I savored every part of this novel. Scalzi's writing is incredible. In Redshirts, he creates a hilarious parody of bad science fiction shows, but more importantly it highlights how bad science, lazy writers, inconsistent plots, and killing off characters just to keep the tension high can detrimentally affect a series and reflect adversely on the shows fans. Good writing, real science, developing characters beyond clich├ęs of a type, and believable plots can make the same show even better. The codas pull it all together and give it depth - questioning what is real and what is fiction? 


Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Bellevue by David Oshinsky
Knopf Doubleday: 11/15/16
eBook review copy; 400 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780385523363
Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky is a very highly recommended history of Bellevue, America's oldest hospital and the iconic public hospital in NYC. This is a commanding history of Bellevue, but even more interesting, of American medicine in the USA, and the various people who played a part in the advances in medicine over the years. As it was at the beginning, Bellevue is dedicated to helping people who need help.

Bellevue opened in 1738 as an almshouse and pesthouse. "Bellevue Hospital, on New York City's East Side, occupies a colorful and horrifying place in the public imagination: a den of mangled crime victims, vicious psychopaths, assorted derelicts, lunatics, and exotic-disease sufferers. In its two and a half centuries of service, there was hardly an epidemic or social catastrophe—or groundbreaking scientific advance—that did not touch Bellevue." The current facilities, 25-story and 1,200-beds, see more than 600,000 patients annually through emergency rooms and outpatient clinics.

Oshinsky traces the history of Bellevue from the early beginnings of quacks, butchery, bleeding patients, and unchecked epidemics. Bellevue accepted anyone who needed help. It treated various epidemics (cholera, yellow fever, small pox) that swept the city, often taking in dying patients sent form other hospitals. It treated patients with typhus, tuberculosis, influenza, puerperal fever, AIDS, and, recently, Ebola. Bellevue was involved in the research of epidemics and germ theory, worked on reforming public health, treated Civil War soldiers, saw the origin of clinical research, the first ambulance fleet, started the first nursing school for women, and pioneered medical photography and psychiatric treatment. More importantly, Oshinsky covers the many physicians and people in the history of Bellevue and medicine. The list of people involved is long and varied. Currently Bellevue is still committed to its mission to train medical professionals.

This is a fascinating medical history with a focus on Bellevue and NYC. Oshinsky includes comprehensive notes and 16 pages of photographs.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Niagara Motel

Niagara Motel by Ashley Little
Arsenal Pulp Press: 11/15/16
eBook review copy; 296 pages
ISBN-13: 9781551526607

Niagara Motel by Ashley Little is a quirky, sometimes heartbreaking, but strangely charming story of an eleven-year-old boy set in1992. It's highly recommended.

Tucker Malone, 11, is the only child of Gina, an unreliable narcoleptic mother whose occupation is stripper and, occasionally, escort. For his whole life, the pair has been moving constantly from one place to another in Canada. After making their way to Niagara Falls, they stay at the run-down Niagara Motel. Gina is sure this will be her big break - until she falls asleep in the street and is hit by a car. Tucker manages to find her at the hospital, but, due to Gina's long recovery for her injuries, he is put into Bright Light, a group home for teens - the only place that has room for him.

There he meets Meredith, a pregnant 16 year-old. The two decide to secretly go on a road trip to Boston to find Tucker's father. Tucker believes that Sam Malone, the bar tender on Cheers, is his father; obviously, this is not true. Then, after the car they "borrowed" breaks down, the two decide to hitchhike to California to meet Ted Danson, the actor who plays Sam Malone. Their travels put them in contact with a motley group of people, many of whom you'd recognize as infamous during this time period. They arrive in Los Angeles just as the Rodney King riots are unfolding.

The story is written through Tucker's point-of-view in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner that is indicative of a preteen boy. Tucker is a great character, positive, and accepting, despite the struggles he has encountered in his life. His inner strength is resolute. His cherished possessions are in a shoe box. He and his mom travel light. His beloved little plastic dog broke my heart (I teared up just typing this). The ending is a bit unbelievable, but so is his road trip in general, so I just rolled with it.

There is something in this novel that just appealed to me. It is well-written, well-paced and compelling. I like Tucker. Little had me caring about Tucker and wishing the best for him. The people he meets on his trip are a bizarre assortment of characters that you should recognize, many for their future evil deeds. Tucker's firm belief that he can find his father is touching. The end of the book, during the riots, is horrifically violent.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Friday, November 11, 2016

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman
Atria Books: 11/1/16

eBook review copy; 96 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501160486

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman is a beautiful, very highly recommended, admirable novella. This is one of the best short stories I have read this year. I loved this little book. Loved it and sobbed while reading it, but they were good tears. It is amazing how Backman managed to capture so much emotion so perfectly. It's a story about love and tenderness and letting go and remembering and legacies and family and....

Bachman introduces the story with a note to the readers, which is the best description of his story:
"This is a story about memories and about letting go. It's a love letter and a slow farewell between a man and his grandson, and between a dad and his boy.
"I never meant for you to read it, to be quite honest. I wrote it just because I was trying to sort out my own thoughts, and I'm the kind of person who needs to see what I'm thinking on paper to make sense of it. But it turned into a small tale of how I'm dealing slowly with losing the greatest minds I know, about missing someone who is still here, and how I wanted to explain it to my children. I'm letting it go for now, for what it's worth.
"It's about fear and love, and how they seem to go hand in hand most of the time. Most of all, it's about time. While we still have it."

This is novella is simply perfect,
everything piece: the writing, the descriptions, the plot, the characters. In And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, Fredrik Backman has given us a gift that deserves to be held dear and cherished.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

In the Country of the Blind

In the Country of the Blind by Edward Hoagland
Arcade Publishing: 11/1/16
eBook review copy; 204 pages
ISBN-13: 9781628727210

In the Country of the Blind by Edward Hoagland is a so-so novel set in the 1960's.

At 47, Press is losing his sight. Due to his loss of sight, he has already lost his job as a stockbroker and his wife, who doesn't want to care for him. He moves to a cabin in Vermont, near a couple helpful neighbors, a hippy commune, and, apparently, drug runners, while he, rather aimlessly, tries to figure out how to live the rest of his life. Carol, an artist and hippy who lives nearby takes an interest in Press and shows up unannounced and visits, takes him to the commune, entertains him, cooks and eats with him, teases him, and provides sex. Melba, a local woman comes to clean his cabin and provides conversation. And random stuff happens.

At age 83, Hoagland, himself, is going blind, which provides some buzz about his novel. It does allow him to describe the loss of sight and the challenges facing Press, but that doesn't seem to be enough to carry the whole novel. Press comes across as a foolish man who is purposefully choosing to be oblivious to certain facts and is making odd, rather self-destructive choices. Additionally, all the characters seem to speak in the same, hesitant voice which results in the conversations all feeling awkward, which were already awkward due to the content.

Even with some parts that were beautifully descriptive, this novel just never hit the right note for me. I finished it feeling dejected and desiring a better novel, or at least one with a plot and more focus.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Inheriting Edith

Inheriting Edith by Zoe Fishman
Harper Collins: 10/18/16
advanced reading copy; 320 pages
trade paperback ISBN-13: 9780062378743

Inheriting Edith by Zoe Fishman is a highly recommended endearing story.

Maggie Sheets is surprised to learn that she has inherited a house in Sag Habor, NY from her friend, author Liza Brennan, especially since the two hadn't been in touch for the last four years. Liza committed suicide, so she must have had a plan in mind before ending her own life. As a single mother to two-year-old Lucy, the house along with a financial inheritance, is a blessing. She can quit cleaning houses for a living and concentrate on raising her daughter. There is one catch, however. Along with the house comes Liza’s 82-year-old mother, Edith.

Edith didn't like Maggie when they meet years earlier and time hasn't likely improved her opinion. Edith is also in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. If Maggie accepts the bequest, she is going to have to deal with the increasing symptoms of Edith's deteriorating condition while trying to raise her daughter. Why did Liza choose her for this position? It soon becomes clear that Maggie has her hands full with her toddler and Edith.

"Edith, you're in trouble. I'm here because, for God knows what reason, Liza wanted me to take care of you. It was her wish. I'm here to carry it out, come hell or high water."

"Well, it's not like you're not being paid handsomely for it," Edith retorted. "A house, a pile of money, a car - I'd say you won the damn lottery."
"If this is winning the lottery, I'm selling my ticket back. You, Edith, are no prize."

The unusual situation results in Maggie and Edith confronting both choices and the resulting consequences in their lives. It also seems that Liza may have known what she was doing when she chose Maggie, however obliquely, for the task of caring for Edith. With a lot of help from Edith's long-time friend, Esther, the two take a prickly start and manage to forge a shaky relationship that opens them up to sharing.

Telling the story through Maggie and Edith, Fishman manages to take a rather improbable situation and make it seem plausible. The novel is a fairly quick and easy book to read, and while both Alzheimer's and depression play important roles in the novel, they are not portrayed in depth or as gravely serious as they are in other novels - or in real life. It is the relationship between the characters that becomes the focus here, which Fishman develops with care and understanding. Inheriting Edith is an endearing, heartwarming story about bonds formed between people from different backgrounds once they realize the similarities of their experiences and set aside differences to work together.

There were two drawbacks in Inheriting Edith for me. One was Lucy, whose constantly demanding chatter and temper tantrums became a tad bit annoying. It did highlight Maggie's exhaustion dealing with both a two-year-old and an eighty-two-year-old. Perhaps I'm becoming an old curmudgeon; nevertheless, I think I could have understood the gest of Maggie's situation with a little less toddler prattle. The second was the potential love interest for Maggie who added nothing and could have just been left out of the book.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from
Harper Collins.




Sunday, November 6, 2016


Faithful by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster: 11/1/16
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476799209

Faithful by Alice Hoffman is a very highly recommended, heartbreaking novel about a young woman guilty over living. Two important facts right off: I sobbed like a baby for probably the last third to a quarter of Faithful and this is one of the best books I have read this year.

Shelby Richmond physically survives the accident that left her best friend, Helene, in a vegetative state on life support, but in reality there were two victims that night. Emotionally Shelby is just as wounded and absent as her friend. She was driving the car that night and suffers from survivor's guilt and overwhelming grief. She's attempted suicide and spent three months in a psychiatric institution where she was repeatedly raped.

Now it's been two years since the accident. Strangers are visiting Helene's bedside, saying that she has healing power, but Shelby's life has stalled. She's living in her parent's basement, smoking pot, and doing her penance for surviving. She's shaved her head, secretly cuts, and stopped living life. Her mother, Sue Richmond, has hope Shelby can recover. So does her angel, a man who sends her hand drawn postcards giving her simple directives like "say something" or "feel something" or "want something."

When her dealer and only friend, Ben Mink, wants her to move to NYC with him as he attends grad school, she goes. This opens her up to a world where no one knows her past. She's just a bald girl working at a pet store now. She loves Chinese takeout and dogs. She makes a friend. Slowly, we see hope for Shelby's recovery.

Admittedly, Faithful starts out dark and seems hopeless, but, if you were ever a lost teen or had a child who struggled, you're going to relate to this novel. If you have ever felt unworthy of love, of life, of success, then you are going to relate to Shelby. Hoffman captures Shelby's loneliness, flaws, heartbreak, missteps, and scars, but she also, carefully, captures her maturation, the importance of emotional connections, recovery, and, ultimately, hope.

Hoffman is an extraordinary, gifted writer. Faithful flows so smoothly, so perfectly, that I scarcely knew time was passing. The characters are all struggling in some way, but they are realistic. Shelby is especially a well-developed character. Once I started it, I was invested in the characters and cared deeply. My heart was breaking for Shelby and I wanted her to find her way. I wanted her life to get better.

I loved Faithful. Hoffman created an unforgettable character in Shelby and gave her life. When I finished the novel, after wiping away yet another round of tears, I knew Faithful would be on the short list for my top ten novels of the year.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Wasps in June

Wasps in June by Brad Prentice
Black Rose Writing: 6/4/15
eBook review copy; 182 pages
ISBN-13: 9781612965345

Wasps in June by Brad Prentice  is a so-so book containing two short stories: "Wasps" and "Ten Days in June."

In "Wasps" swarms of wasps are attacking people in an area of L.A., resulting in death. Why are they attacking and what could be behind the odd behavior? A reporter, John Walsh, tries to uncover more information as the territory of the wasps is increasing. There is more going on than it seems.

In "Ten Days in June" after a student mentions a friend dying in a car accident, professor Vincent West realizes his cousin lives in the area where the student died. He decides to take a trip to visit his cousin, Carson, over summer break. There are some strange things going on that give a new meaning to small town secrets.

While the premise of both stories is promising, the quality of the writing isn't quite up to the task. Rather than having the stories develop and evolve as facts are revealed, both stories are written in a straightforward manner using simple sentences and rudimentary language in multiple short chapters. It's sort of a "they did this, then that happened, and he went there" approach. While this may be good tactic for some readers, it wasn't quite the finely honed writing that I appreciate in short stories. Kudos for interesting plots.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Reading Deals.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Clancys of Queens

The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy
Crown/Archetype: 10/11/16
advanced reader's edition; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101903117

The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy is a recommended coming-of-age memoir.

The only daughter of divorced parents, Tara Clancy writes about her childhood spent in a variety of places. She bounced between her mother's apartment in Bellerose, Queens, her Italian grandmother's neighborhood, her police officer father’s very small Broad Channel home, and every other weekend at an estate in the Hamptons owned by her mother’s boyfriend. This is a non-linear account of her childhood - basically a set of stories that read much like a stand-up routine.

While I found the beginning of her story interesting, it sort of lost its flow and my interest about half way through. The humorous and self-deprecating presentation made up for some of the flaws. The memoir could have used more focus in the presentation. Perhaps including some facts to firmly set the time and place, while sharing what she remembered would have helped. As written, while the beginning was intriguing, once the narrative started to jump around, so did my attention. Clancy is funny though, which helped me continue to read and finish. I should point out that the synopsis doesn't quite fit the memoir.

It was clear early on that I had nothing in my background to help me relate to Clancy's childhood, and, sadly, she didn't offer any universal themes to help bridge that gap. In the end I felt like it would be much better suited for someone who grew up in Queens, who knew the area, and perhaps had an Italian grandmother. Her humor couldn't quite overcome all the flaws with the book.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author via Library Thing.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Unlikely Companions

Unlikely Companions by Laurie Hess and Samantha Rose
Da Capo Press: 11/1/16
eBook review copy, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780738219578

Unlikely Companions by Laurie Hess and Samantha Rose is a highly recommended look at the life of an avian/exotic pet vet. Hess owns the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, NY, where she and her team specialize in avian and exotic animal care. Unlikely Companions follows one week in the life of Hess at work and home.

A perfect choice for animal lovers, this anecdotal work combined with the medical mystery is sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but thoroughly entertaining. The memoir follows Hess as she treats a wide variety of exotic pets and interacts with their owners. The thread that ties the whole week together is her search for what might be causing the illness and death of young sugar gliders. While she is trying to find the answer to that, we are introduced to many of her exotic patients and their owners.

We also get a glimpse into Hess's personal life as she juggles her dedication to her family with the time and toll her challenging career extracts. She admits that she sometimes has to sacrifice her time with her family in order to do her job, but it is a job she loves.

Unlikely Companions is written in a personable, conversational style that is easy to read and is quite enjoyable. She doesn't get all technical on exact treatment details, but provides enough to tell us the story about the pet and owner. You will learn quickly that she has curly hair, which is mention frequently as animals tend to fly, jump, or land in it, and diabetes, as she sometimes gets so caught up in her work that she neglects her health.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.


Cataclysm by Tim Washburn
Kensington: 10/25/16
eBook review copy; 488 pages
ISBN-13: 9780786036554

Cataclysm by Tim Washburn is a recommended disaster novel that would make a great action movie.

There is an earthquake swarm happening at Yellowstone National Park. While small tremors and earthquakes are a common occurrence, these aren't so small and are increasing in magnitude. All the data coming in indicates that the super volcano underneath the park may be heading toward an eruption. The normal geothermal features in the park are growing in intensity. The magma chamber underneath Yellowstone seems to be pushing the park's landmass up at an alarmingly increasing pace. Since the magma chamber is 18 miles wide and almost 55 miles long, an eruption would not only be devastating for the USA, it would negatively impact the entire planet.

Washburn does have several recurring main characters in his book that we follow and a whole cast of doomed extras. To be honest, and my reviews always are, I'm not reading a book called Cataclysm for the well-developed characters or the poetic language (no offense to Washburn). And, admittedly, there were parts of Cataclysm I skimmed through quickly, especially all the White House scenes. I'm reading it for the action, the suspense, the looming disaster, the scrambling scientists and buff park rangers, the panic, the doomed tourists, and the challenge of escaping alive. Cataclysm provided me with a terrific impending disaster of huge proportions and gave me some characters to follow through it.

There were also some flaws in Cataclysm. (I kept switching my rating between 3 and 4 stars because of the flaws.) Without detailing a list of them, most notable was the effort to be as incredibly P.C. as possible. For example, while I can appreciate a diverse cast of characters, in this case I didn't really need a detailed physical description, including the skin tone, of every character in a disaster book. I can usually provide plenty of diversity in my mind's eye... while picturing the mad scramble for survival when death is an expected outcome. It is also possible to have your diversity without making a huge point of describing people. Other characters can always do the job for you. There are also several other examples (anti-fracking) where the effort to be P.C. got in the way of what should be the real focus: THE YELLOWSTONE VOLCANO IS GOING TO ERUPT!

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.