Tuesday, February 28, 2017

All the News I Need

All the News I Need by Joan Frank
University of Massachusetts Press: 1/17/17
trade paperback; 168 pages
ISBN-13: 9781625342621

All the News I Need by Joan Frank is the story of two friends by default who rail against aging and loss, and decide to take a trip to Paris together that instigates changes in their lives.

Oliver (Ollie) Gaffney is a 62 year-old gay man who lives in San Francisco. He is shy, lonely, awkward with others, and subject to panic attacks. Frances (Fran) Ferguson is a 58 year-old widow who lives in the wine country. She is foul-mouthed, sharp-tongued, hard-drinking, and also lonely since her husband Kirk passed away. Kirk was the connection between Ollie and Fran. Now they are both lonely. After all they have both been through, Fran regards Ollie as her brother now. "A dear, good, mad, exasperating, f***ed-up, insoluble brother."

They both have experienced the pain of loss and feel their age creeping up. Even though they both appreciate their set routines, they also feel like life might be passing them by and all they have left is a slow march toward death. Fran insists that the two take a trip together to Paris. She is sure it will be good for both of them. And, in an odd way, this is true.

Frank won the 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Press in this story that examines aging, friendship, loss, and regret. "Because of course she feels what he feels.... People their age natter along not copping to it but the awareness is billboarded all over their faces - a wavering, a hesitation, even those who used to crow and jab the air. The tablecloth of certainty, with all its sparkly settings, has been yanked, and not artfully. It's why people drink."

First I need to get this off my chest: I didn't like this novel at all for most of the book. Good grief, 58 and 62 aren't all that old anymore. If it is, then I guess I'm on the cusp of my dotage - not bloody likely. I sort of think, personally, that Ollie and Fran need to snap out of it and get a life. And the short, choppy sentences, especially at the first chapter, drove me bananas.

Then I hit Ollie's visit with Fran, and, while I still didn't care for either of these characters, I was at least wondering where this would go. But, when Frank introduced the rules for aging Ollie and Fran devised, I was amused and intrigued. I still didn't think either of them should remotely be thinking of themselves as having one foot in the grave and have all of their attention focused on aging. There is something to be said for living your life on your terms.

Frank had a arduous challenge to win over this reviewer, however, when I reached the end of the novel, I became a fan. The conclusion was brilliant. Is is so brilliant, it appeased my earlier displeasure. All the elements of the plot came together resulting in a sense of completeness. After pulling this off, I can say beyond a doubt that Frank is a brilliant writer. She managed to transcend the ordinary in the creation of two very different, realistic characters. I was surprised at how I tilted from strongly disliking All the News I Need to highly recommending it. This is one you have to read to the end.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the University of Massachusetts Press for TLC.  

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Never Let You Go

Never Let You Go by Chevy Stevens
St. Martin's Press: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250034564

Never Let You Go by Chevy Stevens is a tense, nail-biting thriller that will capture your rapt attention from beginning to end. It is very highly recommended. Set aside the time to read this all at once (which you will be doing anyway, so you might as well plan for it).

Eleven years ago, Lindsey Nash escaped an abusive relationship. It was a miracle that she managed to get out alive with her daughter, Sophie. Her ex-husband, Andrew, was arrested when he drove drunk in search of her, causing an accident that killed a woman. He was sent to jail and Lindsey and Sophie went on to start a new life in Dogwood Bay, a lakeshore town in British Columbia. She has her own business cleaning houses. Sophie is now 17 and getting ready to finish high school.

Now Andrew is being released from prison. Lindsey is sure he can't find her, but when disturbing things begin to happen, it appears that someone is watching her and even entering her home, she contacts the police. As the threats escalate, it seems to be clear that Andrew is trying to extract revenge on her.

Sophie, unknown to Linsey, has sent letters to her father when he was in prison and she agrees to secretly meet with him when he is released. He claims he has changed and that he would never harm Lindsey, but is he telling the truth? Clearly someone is stalking Lindsey and means her harm.

The story is told in the alternating voices of Lindsey and Sophie. It also shifts back and forth in time, chronicling Andrew's escalating abuse and control over Lindsey. Lindsey's terror is palpable as she relates the story of Andrew's increasingly violent abuse and control over her, even to the point where she is scared for Sophie's safety.  Sophie's chapters are all present day. She was just a child when Andrew was sent to prison. She wants a father, but also knows about Lindsey's fear over his abuse.

This is a masterful fast-paced thriller. The writing is incredible. The plot is skillfully presented as the suspense just keeps building on itself and you don't know who you can trust. Let's just say there is more than one suspect. Lindsey and Sophie are well developed, imperfect characters with flaws, talents, and doubts, who are placed in an impossibly strained situation.  There are a couple twists that I didn't see coming at all that took my breath away.

Get this novel! Chevy Stevens is proving she's a writer who can consistently create an excellent novel that is sure to ramp up the tension, surprise you with some twists, and leave you satisfied with the ending. Never Let You Go is now added to my list of best books of the year.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press.

Bleaker House

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
Knopf Doubleday:3/14/17
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385541558

In Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World author Nell Stevens writes about spending three months in the Falkland Islands, during the winter, all in pursuit of writing her first novel. This memoir is a very highly recommended compilation of her life, visiting the Falklands, and her first book.

After completing an MFA degree at Boston University, Nell Stevens is offered a fellowship that allows her to live, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world while she writes her first book. Others may choose Paris or a retreat, but Stevens decides to go to Bleaker Island in the Falklands, located on the southern tip of South America in the Antarctic waters of the South Atlantic - during the winter months. She chose this because she felt like it would be the perfect way to eliminate distractions and help her focus on writing her novel.

After staying for several weeks in Stanley , the capital (which has little to offer, but does have seven pubs) she learns about the residents great mistrust of Argentinians and journalists, and the careful records kept of family trees due to the limited population. Stevens then proceeds on to Bleaker Island where she is the only guest in a guest house. The island is either population 1 (Stevens) or three when the owners are on the island.

"Why do you do it to yourself?" wonders her mother.  A novelist friend helps answer the question, "That's the thing about being a writer. Every bad experience you have is good material."

The only way for Stevens to get to Bleaker is by air, which means that Stevens has to pack in all her provisions for her stay and there is a weight limit. She has carefully packed enough food for 1,085 calories a day, which requires counting out her daily ration of raisins and almonds. On the island she tries to write her novel surrounded by sheep, penguins, caracara birds, and cattle on the stormy, snow and sleet covered wind swept island. And she does start a novel -  a terribly bad novel.

I found Bleaker House entertaining and engaging. In it Stevens creates a mosaic of her writing life. She has compiled pieces of ideas together among the stories of her travels, observations, and experiences on Bleaker that include snippets from other fictional writing she's done, life experiences and stories, writing while at a job, and parts of the novel she wrote on Bleaker. While she doesn't come away with a good novel, she did leave the island with a book. It is a wonderfully insightful and honest look at the creative struggles behind writing a novel that includes wry humor, writing advice she's received, personal anecdotes, and how you can't escape yourself even when you are the only one on a remote island. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Drifter

The Drifter by Christine Lennon
HarperCollins: 2/14/17
uncorrected proof; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062457578

The Drifter by Christine Lennon is a recommended coming-of-age story set in Gainesville, Florida and NYC during the 1990's.

Elizabeth (Betsy) is successful, working at a large art auction house in NYC. She and her husband, Gavin, have a four-year-old daughter, Remi. So why is Elizabeth having nightmares and why is she finding it so difficult to let Remi attend preschool? The answers are found 20 years ago, back in 1990 when she was in college.

Betsy and her two closest friends, Ginny and Caroline are all attending the University of Florida where they first met as sorority sisters. Now rebellious and independent Betsy has turned in her pin. She and Ginny are still close, but she's had a rift with Caroline so their interaction with each other is, at best, tolerant, but usually tense and prickly. It is August and Betsy and Ginny have spent the summer as roommates. Betsy rides her bike to the bagel shop where she works. She drinks too much and hangs out with Ginny, waiting for Caroline and the students to return and classes to start. Betsy just has one more semester until graduation and she has just met Gavin. When a young woman is brutally murdered in town it doesn't become frightening until there is a second victim and it appears that there is a serial killer on the loose.

Lennon opens with Elizabeth in 2010, trying to let her daughter attend preschool, but still fearful for Remi's safety and apparently having nightmares again. Then it jumps back to August 22, 1990, when Elizabeth was Betsy and finishing college. The Drifter has this great opening, a hook to capture the reader's interest - why is Elizabeth so frightened and having nightmares. Then the novel jumps back in time, when she was in college, and you assume answers will be coming. Lennon does capture the college life, sororities, and divulges Betsy's back story.

The answer about what happened to Elizabeth in college does come, but it seems almost an afterthought. Then the novel moves on with Betsy and Gavin in NYC where they are trying to start their careers and carelessly doing too many drugs. Betsy is now Elizabeth and she is still haunted about what happened in Florida. The problem is that we read about the traumatic event and then the novel goes on and on about the minutia of Elizabeth's life. Actually, what she needed was a therapist to help her work through what happened. I guess my main problem with The Drifter is that plenty of people have had events just as or more traumatic happen in their lives, but they don't allow it to take over. They also don't tell everyone they meet about it.

Lennon does do an excellent job with her descriptions and in setting the time and place for her characters. You can feel the heat and humidity, appreciate the relief a cold blast of AC brings. Betsy is a well-developed character - even while you are shaking your head over her depression and self-induced anxiety. There is a surprise reveal at the end that really is anticlimactic after the years of Elizabeth's angst. Read this one for the descriptive writing rather than the plot.

Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof of this novel from HarperCollins for the TLC book tour.  


Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Book of Etta

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison
47North: 2/21/17
eBook review copy; 314 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503941823
The Road to Nowhere #2

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison is the second book in the post-apocalyptic series that started with The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. You have to read the first book in the series before The Book of Etta. About a hundred years have passed since the time of the unnamed midwife when a plague wiped out nearly everyone, but especially women and children. Childbirth is still dangerous.

Etta/Eddy comes from Nowhere, the village of survivors (located in the present day Ozarks/Odarks) that reveres the unnamed midwife. Etta wants to be a scavenger, not a midwife or a mother, the only two recognized positions for women in her village. She goes out on forays disguised as Eddy where she looks for useful items and rescues any women/girls being sold by slavers she might meet on the road. After one foray into Estiel (St. Louis) where the powerful leader called the Lion is located, she now tries to avoid the city. His followers raid nearby communities, demand tributes, loyalty and especially women and girls to all be taken for the Lion.

There are small communities that are becoming established now and each of them deal with the gender inequality differently. Women in Nowhere have hives, where one woman has a group of men. The Lion keeps a harem of women and rules by fear and power, but there are also catamites (castrated boys) for his men's use. (Girls are being cut too, so genital mutilation is an occurrence now.) There are several other settlements introduced here that have their societies set up differently.

The big, overriding theme in The Book of Etta is the question/complication of gender identity, inequality, and the firm roles in place for various communities. Etta identifies as Eddy and is transgender but is not allowed to be Eddy in Nowhere, where women are either midwives or mothers with a hive, while other communities have different rules in place for their men and women. Each different community Eddy visits is like a different, weird societal cult where there are specific roles assigned based on gender. Eddy doesn't have a place.

I was eager and excited to read the second book in the planned trilogy because I loved The Book of the Unnamed Midwife so much. The writing is still very good. I wasn't as captivated by this second installment, however. It could be the second-book-in-a-series syndrome since it is obviously a bridge to the final installment. Although it is still brutal and gritty, the focus and anxiety over gender questions among several characters is almost overwrought, taking up more pages of anxiety than would seem necessary in this changed world.  It will be interesting to see where Elison is taking this series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of 47North.

Things We Lost in the Fire

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
Hogarth: 2/21/17
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451495112

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez is a highly recommended collection of 12 ominous and dark short stories set in contemporary Argentina.
These stories capture the superstitions, instability, violence, and strangeness that can pervade everyday life in Argentina and turns this into more ominous stories. It will be surprising when you start the first story and see it morph into something completely different, setting the tone for the whole collection. Peculiarities and aberrations abound among the settings of these stories. Some will shock, some will horrify, and some will leave you looking around wondering what is really lurking nearby in your neighborhood.

The stories include:
The Dirty Kid: A woman becomes obsessed with a homeless pregnant woman and her son who live by an abandoned building across the street.
The Inn: A haunted tourist hotel was built on a former police barracks.
The Intoxicated Years: An account of the increasing drug use of five friends. 
Adela’s House: An abandoned house may be more than it seems.
An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt: A tour guide for Buenos Aires murder sites resents the attention his wife shows their newborn. 
Spiderweb: A broken down car helps a disintegrating marriage to crumble.
End of Term: A girl is self-mutilating.
No Flesh over Our Bones: An anorexic woman finds a human skull in the street and attaches human qualities to it.
The Neighbor’s Courtyard: a woman is sure a neighbor has chained up a young boy.
Under the Black Water: A polluted river may hold more than it seems.
Green Red Orange: A man secludes himself in his room, seeing no one in person.
Things We Lost in the Fire: Women are self-immolating in protest of domestic violence.

The stories are all well written, although, naturally, I did enjoy some more than others. They manage to capture life in Argentina and the belief among the citizens, as well as the violence, crime, gangs, etc., especially against women. The stories are open-ended, with no real explanation or conclusion, leaving you to wonder what will happen next. This is a wonderful collection.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Hogarth.

All That's Left to Tell

All That's Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe
Flatiron Books: 2/14/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250085559

All That's Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe is a novel about telling stories set in a disturbing framework.

American Marc Laurent is a midlevel Pepsi executive who is taken hostage in Pakistan. Every night his hands are tied behind his back and he is blindfolded when a woman who tells him to call her Josephine visits the room where he is kept. She wants to know who will pay a ransom for his release. When it becomes clear that Marc is estranged from everyone he knows in the USA, she begins to demand that he tell her stories about his life, focusing on his daughter Claire, who at age 19 was murdered a month ago and Marc did not return to the USA for her funeral.

As Marc slowly reveals stories from his past, Josephine weaves tales about a future Claire at 34 years old. This Claire survived the attack, is married and has a daughter. She is traveling to Michigan to see her estranged father who is dying. On the way Claire picks up a hitchhiker named Genevieve, who makes up stories for Claire about Marc’s life after he divorced her mother.

This is a beautifully written novel that consists of a story made up of stories within stories that share common connections. The line between reality and story-telling blurs and what is real and what is fiction becomes unclear. The truth of Marc's situation may be less rewarding than the stories. The stories themselves become more real, more compelling, than reality. The stories are what develop the characters, real or imagined. The plot is the story telling - or the plots within the stories. It's all very consciously self-referential; I kept picturing an ouroboros while reading.

The writing is powerful and masterful - there is no fault to be found there. For some reason I bristled at being played with emotionally as Marc's reality stands in stark juxtaposition with the stories being crafted and so lovingly told. Sometimes it's okay if an author messes with my mind while I'm reading; sometimes it just begins to annoy me and feels like too much manipulation. I'm afraid that this time the set up for the story telling felt too contrived for me and, in view of current events, a bit insensitive and careless. It is clear from the start that Marc, a hostage who is surely going to be executed by these terrorists who are forcing him to tell stories, may find some comfort from the stories being told to him, but I can find no charm in this, no matter how exquisitely written. Yes, people and ideas can live on in stories, but stories don't negate the ugliness behind taking a person hostage to ransom them.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Our Short History

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 3/21/17
advanced reading copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616206222

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein is a heart-breaking, insightful, emotional, compelling novel about a dying mother and her love for her son.

Karen Neulander is a successful New York political consultant who was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. She's doing everything she can to live as long as she possibly can, but she is dying. How can she leave her six-year-old son, Jake (Jacob), behind? While Karen makes plans for Jake to live with Allie, her sister, she is writing this book, the book we are reading, for Jake to read when he turns 18. She is trying to be as honest as she can about her feelings, what they are both experiencing, and how much, how fiercely she loves him.

When Jake asks to meet his father, Karen is unsure. Dave didn't want children and made that clear years ago when Karen told him she was pregnant. He even question if he was the father. Karen has had no contact with him since then and he has no idea he has a son. When she finally contacts him, she is shocked and annoyed to have him respond so positively. He is excited to meet Jake and wants them to meet as soon as possible. Karen is experiencing a plethora of emotions. Dave was the love of her life and he broke her heart. Now he wants to bond with her son, the son she has loved and raised without him. Dave's a smart lawyer too. Will he now try to take her son?

There is no question that this is a heart-breaking tear-jerker of a novel that will have you crying your eyes out more than once. Karen is brutally honest in the book she is writing for her son, although she is really writing it for herself. Grodstein perfectly captures a mother's fierce and protective love for her children and the sacrifices she is willing to make. She is trying to prepare for her death while knowing she will have to give Jake up. She's going to leave him behind - and how can that happen? She is fighting to live for Jake and then Dave waltzes in and effortlessly wants to be a part of Jake's life now. There are no good answers, only raw emotion, pain, and trying to make the best plans/choices.

The writing is excellent and captures Karen's struggles and pain with a startling amount of wit and humor. She is depicted as a real woman. We see her love and devotion for Jake along with her flaws and determination. Her death is not coming easy, and you can see Jake's struggles to understand and her sister's pain as she prepares to let her go. The only real drawback to the book is the framework that it is a letter to be read by her son in the future. Perhaps a diary format would have made more sense, but then perhaps we would have lost some of the emotional impact. In any event, I sobbed my way through this novel and enjoyed every moment of pain. 4.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What You Break

What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/7/17
hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399173042
Gus Murphy Series #2

What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman is a very highly recommended second detective novel featuring ex-cop Gus Murphy.

Gus is still working as security for the Paragon Hotel in Suffolk County and part time courtesy driver to Long Island’s MacArthur Airport. Gus is asked by his friend Bill Kilkenny, an ex-priest, to meet with Micah Spears and take on an investigation into why Spears granddaughter, Linh Trang, was brutally murdered. The cops have the man who did it, suspect, Asesinos gang member Rondo Salazar, but no one knows why he did it and he's not talking. Spears offers Gus two big incentives to find out the answers: 2 large check, one to fund a youth sports association in John Jr.'s name, his late son, and another to fund research at Stony Brook University Hospital.

At the same time it appears that his reticent friend who also works at the Paragon, Slava Podalak, is in trouble. A man with a Russian accent who appears to be on the run has arrived and he and Slava took off together. Gus followed, saw them pick up a third man, and go to his house. After Slava and the first man left, Gus saw the third man gunned down in front of his house. The cops are now questioning Gus when it's reported that his car was near the scene, but Gus doesn't give them any help while he's trying to protect Slava. But when a mysterious Russian hitman implies Maggie's (Gus's girlfriend) life is in danger if Gus doesn't provide him information, Gus needs to protect her too.

Gus Murphy is a great character and I'm pleased to see him back in this second novel. Again, the writing is great, the plot is tight, and the action fast-pace. While I didn't like What You Break quite as much as the first Gus Murphy novel, Where It Hurts, we're talking 4.5 to 5, so I still liked it quite a bit. It is just as engrossing as the first and yes, I stayed up way too late to finish it. There are two great factors that make Coleman's Gus Murphy novels so appealing. The first is the character of Gus, who is flawed. He's broken, still hurting, and it seems that memories and emotional minefields are everywhere for him.

Gus is smart, though, which leads to the second fact: they are well written and thoughtful. I like that we don't always know what Gus is thinking, that he plays his cards close to his chest. I would expect that of him and appreciate it in the character. When the cases eventually, unexpectedly collide, it is very clever. The end is a bit of a shocker, but it leads to some serious anticipation for the next Gus Murphy novel. You kind of want to tell Gus, "Be careful, Boy-o, with your heart and yourself."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Barrowfields

The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis
Hogarth: 3/7/17
uncorrected proof; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451495648

The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis is a highly recommended brooding, Southern Gothic coming-of-age debut novel.

Henry Aster's father, also named Henry, left Old Buckram, North Carolina, a small Appalachian town, to attend college and never planned to return. He married and obtaining a law degree, all while knowing he had a great novel inside of him. He did return to N.C. with his pregnant wife, Eleonore, just before Henry's birth, when he learned his mother was ill. Henry's father is a brilliant, passionate man who wants to be a writer. When he has some notable success with a legal case, he buys a mansion perched on the side of a mountain, nick-named "the vulture house." Here he raises his family, Henry and his sister, Threnody, and struggles to write his novel surrounded by a huge collection of books. He is a brilliant man, tortured and drinking too much, who abandons his family.

Henry narrates the story of his father and his growing up in Old Buckram. He follows the path of his father, leaving home and planning to never return. He obtains a law degree. Eventually, he too returns to the vulture house with a need to confront the memories left behind in the house and find closure.

This is a beautifully written novel full of eloquent prose. It has a wonderfully detailed and descriptive use of language that captures the atmosphere of the settings. You can immerse yourself in this novel and feel as if you were there with the characters. The characters are all well-developed - becoming vivid and realistic. Although the tone of the novel can be dark and depressing, there are some lighter moments that relieve the tension. A bit of the momentum is lost when Henry meets and pursues the young woman named Story and we are pulled into her challenges. She has a mystery of her own she is trying to unravel. Part of the ending was a surprise to me, although, perhaps, suspected, but I appreciated the way it was handled.

The Barrowfields is a great choice when you want to immerse yourself in a dark, atmospheric novel that follows a family and investigates the relationship between fathers and sons.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House via Library Thing.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Shimmering Road

The Shimmering Road by Hester Young
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/14/17
eBook review copy: 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399174018

The Shimmering Road by Hester Young is a highly recommended mystery and the second book in a series featuring Charlotte "Charlie" Cates. The Gates of Evangeline is the first book in the series - and I immediately bought it after reading this second book first. You can enjoy The Shimmering Road without reading The Gates of Evangeline first, but I predict you will want to read both books in order to prepare for the planned third book.

Charlie has left her job as a journalist and the East Coast behind to start a new life in Sidalie, Texas, with Noah and the daughter they're expecting. Charlie is recovering from the death of her son and, while Noah is committed to her and is proposing marriage and house hunting with her for a home for them, she is uncertain about living in Sidalie with so many reminders of Carmen, his first wife, there. Charlie has dreams that are premonitions of events that have happened or will happen. Currently she has been having a recurring dream where she and her unborn daughter die while taking a shower. She and Noah carefully check out the showers in the houses they are looking at, but she hasn't seen it yet.

Then she gets a call from her aunt. There has been a double murder in Tucson, Arizona. Her estranged mother, Donna, who abandoned her as a toddler, and an unknown half-sister, Jasmine, were both shot. Left behind is Charlie's 6 year-old niece, Mickey. Charlie is convinced that Mickey is the girl Charlie has a vision of leaving bloody footprints across a floor, so she and Noah travel to Tucson to see if they can help and perhaps adopt Mickey, as well as confront Charlie's past. 

Charlie assumed the murders were drug-related, but when they get to Arizona, it appears that her mother was clean and working for a nonprofit charitable organization that helped impoverished women in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. So were their murders tied into something her loser half-sister was involved in, or had her mother started using again? Charlie is still having dreams/visions and while she is meeting the friends of her mother and sister, she needs to try and figure out where the truth lies.

This is a compelling story and Charlie is a likeable character. You will want to find out what happened to Donna and Jasmine, if only for Charlie's peace of mind and so answers will be available for Mickey someday. The plot does get a little convoluted and complicated, throwing out red herring about what may have happened, but the writing is very good and you will want to find the answers to solve Charlie's visions. Young does an excellent job with the descriptions of the settings and characters, making this novel come to life for the reader.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin/Random House.

Thursday, February 9, 2017


Uscolia: Learning without Teaching by Gabriel Lanyi
Sycorax Books: 12/14/16
eBook; 193 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1941245101 

Uscolia: Learning without Teaching by Gabriel Lanyi is a look at a utopian form of education. The educational ideals are presented as being developed and used on a fictional modest size island located on the 49th parallel separating the US from Canada, and about 170 miles from both Seattle and Vancouver.

"All newborns are created equal. But a day later they no longer are. This is the motto of Uscolia, the land of native fluency and of learning without teaching.
Imagine the earth as a gigantic experiment in learning. Every minute 256 babies are born with brains identically wired for inquiry and knowledge. A minute later, however, each newborn in its crib, cradle, bassinet, basket, or carry cot is exposed to different signals that begin to shape its brain, and each one embarks on a separate trajectory leading to a different adventure. It is called life. The way the stimuli are organized and presented to these newborns determines the path they take through life. If you are aware of it, you can help guide its course to a considerable extent. But you must have a path marked, or at least a direction of travel mapped out at birth or close thereafter. Uscolians believe that they have discovered such a path." (from uscolia.com.)

The postulate is that teaching is a fiction. It doesn't work and doesn't need to exist in order for learning to take place. Learning is internal, not external. Native fluency acquisition, or "nativism," "involves frequent repetition, no explanations, no testing, lots of play, and human interaction." If children are given the opportunity to discover music, math, languages, etc. they will. "Learning is self-supporting and exponential, so that all knowledge already acquired facilitates further acquisition (one reason why early exposure is so important). The enablers of native fluency (usually the parents) can give more than they have. Native fluency acquired in any field changes the brain."

Many of the ideas here are not new and can be found in other books and guides that have more easily accessible language and are presented in a usable format. The ideas are quite common in the homeschool community where parents may combine what is viewed as more formal educational techniques with unstructured and self-directed learning based entirely on the interests of the child, or may take an entirely unschooled approach to education, as Uscolia suggests is so revolutionary. My background is both professional educator and homeschooler who educated her children entirely apart from the system. I wouldn't recommend Uscolia as a guide to those who want to take this journey - unless you have a privileged background and the means to either pay for the services of or finance a commune of like-minded people who have all the skills and patience needed to love and enrich the life of your child with languages, math, and music, etc..

While it is an interesting book about learning and education, executing the ideas presented won't be even remotely attainable by most people. It is presented as fiction, but is most certainly meant to be a treatise on a better plan for learning than our current educational system.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hit Makers

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/7/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101980323

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is a very highly recommended examination of popularity of things and how and why they gained their status. This is an engrossing look at popularity. Thompson has a comfortable writing style that is full of anecdotes and examples. He creatively ties widely divergent topics together in a fascinating, entertaining format.

Nothing really "goes viral." There is a reason why a song, movie, book, app, etc. became popular. Thompson explores "the psychology of why people like what they like, the social networks through which ideas spread, and the economics of cultural markets." As he succinctly points out, people are both "neophilic - curious to discover new things - and deeply neophobic - afraid of anything that’s too new. The best hit makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding. They are architects of familiar surprises." So, Hit Makers asks two questions: 1. What is the secret to making products that people like - in music, movies, television, books, games, apps, and more across the vast landscape of culture? 2. Why do some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

Thompson covers a wide variety of pop cultural blockbusters ranging from and including Brahms lullaby, the impressionist canon (yeah, the Impressionists, as in painters), ESPN, Cheers and Seinfeld, Star Wars, Rock Around the Clock, Fifty Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones,  Etsy, Facebook, the laugh track, Vampires, Disney Princesses, and much more. Even more interesting is how he ties so many different hits together to explain what they became hits. One principle that governs almost all hits is MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Achievable. "MAYA offers three clear lessons. First: Audiences don’t know everything, but they know more than creators do. Second: To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar. Third: People sometimes don’t know what they want until they already love it."

The incident that created the impressionist canon took me by surprise, and yet it makes perfect sense. Thompson shows how "the impressionist canon focuses on a tight cluster of seven core painters: Manet, Monet, C├ęzanne, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley - the Caillebotte Seven. When painter and collector Gustave Caillebotte donated his art collection upon his untimely death, his donation helped to create the impressionist canon. The power of repeated exposure, whether it is paintings that are exhibited or other things is a powerful tool in determining what is a hit.

What makes a song succeed? "Even at the dawn of the American music business, to make a song a hit, a memorable melody was secondary to an ingenious marketing campaign." Interesting, but clearly true.

I wanted to pump my fist and yell "Yes, this!" when Thompson points out, and rightly so, that "there is such a thing as too much familiarity. It’s everywhere, in fact. It’s hearing a catchy song for the tenth time in a row, watching a movie that is oh so predictably uncreative, or hearing a talented speaker use overfamiliar buzzword after buzzword. In fluency studies, the power of familiarity is discounted when people realize that the moderator is trying to browbeat them with the same stimulus again and again. This is one reason why so much advertising doesn’t work: People have a built-in resistance to marketing that feels like it’s trying to seduce them." I have experienced this many times over the years (mindset or grit, anyone?) Recently when the video for a women's conference kept repeated the name of the event throughout the video as a buzz word, all it did was annoy me and strengthen my determination to not attend.

This is specifically for readers. Many of you will understand: "When people read, they hear voices and see images in their head. This production is total synesthesia and something close to madness. A great book is a hallucinated IMAX film for one. The author had a feeling, which he turned into words, and the reader gets a feeling from those words - maybe it’s the same feeling; maybe it’s not. As Peter Mendelsund wrote in What We See When We Read, a book is a coproduction. A reader both performs the book and attends the performance. She is conductor, orchestra, and audience. A book, whether nonfiction or fiction, is an 'invitation to daydream.'"

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Book Thieves

The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell, Henning Koch (Translator)
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/7/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735221222

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell, Henning Koch (Translator) is a very highly recommended well researched account of the Nazis' systematic pillaging of Europe's libraries and the librarians that are now working to return the books to their rightful owners or heirs. This is a well-written, fascinating look at crimes of the past and how some people are working to rectify them. Rydell visited many of the libraries that are still in the process of sorting through the stolen books.

The Book Thieves
is a story of the looting and dispersal, as well as the burning and destruction, of of thousands of libraries and millions of individual books during WWII. As the description of The Book Thieves says: "In this secret war, the libraries of Jews, Communists, Liberal politicians, LGBT activists, Catholics, Freemasons, and many other opposition groups were appropriated for Nazi research, and used as an intellectual weapon against their owners. But when the war was over, most of the books were never returned. Instead many found their way into the public library system, where they remain to this day."

Libraries that were built up over generations helped form "the cultural, linguistic, and identity-defining heart of communities, families, and individuals. Libraries that were irreplaceable in their own right - a reflection of the people and societies that once created and nurtured them." When these collections were stolen, and dispersed or burned, it was stealing the cultural identity of families and groups. "Robbing people of words and narrative is a way of imprisoning them. Books are rarely unique in the same way as works of art, but they have a value that so many more people can understand. In our time, the book has retained a symbolic value that is almost spiritual. Discarding books is still considered sacrilegious. The burning of books is one of the strongest symbolic actions there is, correlating with cultural destruction. While mainly identified with the Nazi book pyres of 1933, the symbolic destruction of literature is as old as the book itself."

The Nazis understood that to control people and their beliefs, they needed to control the literature. Mind control, the quest for a hive-mind mentality, and punishing those who don't comply is nothing new. In contrast, there were people who risked their lives to try and save parts of their literary inheritance. They understood that "the theft of their literary culture was a way of robbing them of their history, their humanity, and, in the final analysis, any possibility of remembrance." These people hid old manuscripts, important religious works, and even diaries.

While this is about the history of the Nazis' looting, burning, and control of millions of books, it is also a hopeful account about the people who are currently trying to catalogue the vast number of these stolen books and find a way to return those they can (because of identifying marks, plates, notes, names, etc.) to their original owners. It is a daunting task, especially since over the years it is clear that librarians have cut out identifying pages or deface marks identifying original owners. It was heartening to see that Google is helping this effort - when people are searching for ancestors, they can come across information about their family's confiscated books. Even though many of the books have little monetary value, the personal value can be priceless.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House/Viking.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Unpunished by Lisa Black
Kensington: 1/31/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781496701909
Gardiner and Renner Series #2

Unpunished by Lisa Black is a police procedural and the second book in a series featuring forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner.

This time Robert Davis, a copy editor at the Cleveland Herald, is found hanging off the railing above the print room during the nightly press run for the paper.  At first it appears to be a suicide, but upon closer inspection it is clear that Davis was murdered. Maggie Gardier and Jack Renner are involved in the investigation. They have a wary truce and share a secret that could ruin both of them. The investigation includes a mass of information about the death keel of the print news industry today. Can the murderer be found before he or she strikes again?

My first advice is to read Lisa Black's That Darkness first. As the second in a series where I somehow missed the first book, That Darkness, I was missing some vital background information on the two characters. Although I could gather the gist of it, I actually wanted more information to help create a complete picture of the two characters. I know they were involved in a case where Maggie figured out Jack was a serial killer/vigilante who eliminated the bad guys who deserved to die. Maggie has a secret that she shares with him and the two have an uneasy truce/agreement. Very intriguing characters, but I had incomplete background information about the two.

Setting that aside, figuring out who did it was pretty darn easy in this case, but I think the book was more about these two characters and their uneasy alliance. There is also a plethora of information about the death of the newspaper industry. Black researched the facts and includes a bibliography of the books that helped her research. It was fun to see the case develop and the clues that are followed.

The writing is great. I enjoyed following the investigation and I like Maggie, but I wanted the full backstory. Sometimes you can read a mystery series out of order, sometimes you can't. You need to read this series in the order intended. I did enjoy it and was glued to the pages through the whole book.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington Publishing.

The Evening Road

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt
Little, Brown and Company: 2/7/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316391283

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt is a recommended novel set in Indiana in the 1920's on the day a lynching is to take place.

The news is all over that a lynching is going to take place in Marvel and all the citizens nearby are planning to travel to see it. This is the story of two different women on that day and what happens as they travel to or away from the Marvel. The novel is in two parts, one for Ottie Lee and one for Calla. There is a final chapter from a woman who is called "The Angel Runner."

Ottie Lee Henshaw is traveling with Bud Lancer, her lecherous boss, and Dale, her husband. Along their journey they get a flat tire, stop at a church supper, a dance hall, and a Quaker prayer meeting, pick up lots of alcohol, and commandeer a mule-drawn wagon. Calla Destry, a young black woman who was supposed to meet someone who never showed up is desperate to leave Marvel and find the man who was supposed to meet her, as well as find her .

While the lynching is the main topic/event all the characters are talking about, it is not the subject matter and plays a dark, but peripheral, role in the novel. This is a character driven novel. The main subjects are the two female characters and their self-discovery on this day and during this time in history. They both have secrets they are keeping. Ottie Lee's journey feels disjointed and awkward as the group is constantly pulled off course or interrupted during their trip. Calla's journey is smoother and easier to follow, but almost as meandering. The paths of the two cross several times, in startling ways.

While the quality of the writing is excellent, Laird calls whites "cornsilks" and blacks "cornflowers" which I found very confusing and it made it a struggle to follow dialogue. Having the lynching in Marvel the main event and focus of all the characters, but never really the intended main focus left me feeling disjointed. The circuitous path both characters take on this day is frustrating.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Hachette Book Group.