Tag Archives: 2009

New York State of Mind

The Widow of Wall Street: A Novel by Randy Susan Meyers (Atria Books, $26.00, 352 pages)

widow of wall street

As with The Murderer’s Daughters, The Widow of Wall Street transports the reader into situations that few people experience.  Author Randy Susan Meyers  maintains her running theme of human frailty in this, her fourth novel.

A bitter opening chapter sends the tale to nearly the end of its long and treacherous timespan, from August 1960 to 2009.  Author Meyers has taken the horrific scandal that was the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and reworked it into an up close and personal morality piece that provides raw emotion and insight into the lives of her fictional characters.  While the general premise of the telling closely mirrors the real life front page story, the details that are specific to Meyer’s characters are of her own invention.

Phoebe has a better than ordinary life living on a nicer street in Brooklyn.  She’s pretty and doesn’t look like the rest of her Jewish family.  At age fifteen Phoebe has become smitten with Jake Pierce who has just turned eighteen.  Jake’s family is down the economic ladder from Phoebe’s.  Jake is ambitious, agressive and determined to get ahead.

As the chapters unfold, the pace of the tale quickens.  Phoebe and Jake’s life as a married couple in New York has its up and downs.  Jake is clearly obsessed with making money and Phoebe feels she has been relegated to a boring housewife life.  Jake is a risk-taker and he lacks the sort of empathy that would temper his personal drive.  Consistent with the Bernard Madoff scenario, Jake borrows money from his wife’s family, which as we know puts them at jeopardy of being his victims.

Author Meyers does an excellent job of depicting her characters.  Jake is hard edged and deluded, as a Ponzi scheme boss must be to maintain the illusions he creates.  Phoebe, for the most part, lacks the fortitude and willingness to see past the glittering life she leads as the scheme grows and grows.

While the tale is not original, the writing is superb.  Readers will wonder at the lives led by the super rich.  It’s like being behind the scenes of the pages of People magazine.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Widow of Wall Street was released on April 11, 2017.

 

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Time Travel Mysteries

The Secret Keeper: A Novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books, $26.99, 496 pages)

Every family has a secret or two.   It might be an escapade by great-aunt Sally that nobody wants to acknowledge for fear of losing social standing in the community.   On the other hand, it might be a secret so huge and shocking that it lays buried in the subconscious of the only witness to the event.

Author Kate Morton makes good use of poetic illusions and warped time as she slowly peels back the layers of a family history with Laurel Nicolson (a renowned actress), Vivien Jenkins (a lovely and wealthy socialite), and Dorothy Nicholson (the mother of Laurel, her sisters and her brother) at its center.   The tale switches back and forth between time periods, mostly World War II and 2011.   Although the reader is provided with ample notice of the time switches, there exists a vague sense of unease and confusion conveyed by Laurel and her sisters.

Perhaps the fact that this is a story with action locales in the English countryside and sea-shore, London, as well as a flashback to Australia adds to the sense of wondering and aimlessness felt by this reviewer.   The descriptions of the devastation wrought by the London bombings are no doubt accurate and they are terrifying.   Also, there were times when a look back at prior chapters was necessary to clarify character names and roles.   This mild discomfort was well worth enduring for the remarkable payoff Ms. Morton reveals at the conclusion of her saga.

Well recommended.

Far North: A Magnus Jonson Mystery by Michael Ridpath (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

Get ready for a strange adventure when you read Far North.   By strange I mean out of the ordinary in terms of setting and vocabulary.   The setting is Iceland and the time is post-2007 economic crash that basically ruined the economy of the country.   While the rampant cheating and leveraging engaged in by business and banking moguls all over the world caused great harm, it was devastating for this cold and wind-swept country of less than half a million residents.

Basically, the tale is an English style detective story displaced to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.   As such the reader is treated to a nice travelogue with multi-generational murders and Nordic style myths and sagas.   Time switches among several periods beginning with August 1934 and progresses in odd intervals toward the fall of 2009.   Main character/protagonist Magnus Jonson is a detective of Icelandic background whose home is Boston, Massachusetts.   Magnus is hiding from gangsters he has fingered in Boston as he attends the police academy in Iceland.

Conveniently, Magnus is the sort of detective that can’t help detecting, even when the case may not be his own assignment.   Along the way he coordinates with other detectives to make sense of revelations he has made.   Childhood traumas have a way of insidiously seeping into the actions of damaged adults.   That lesson is hammered home throughout the gripping tale.

Note to potential readers:  The complex naming system for people in Iceland may be confusing and the pronunciation of geographic names may be daunting.   Don’t let that get between you and an exhilarating chase to the end.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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A Great Book Giveaway

This site picked Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger as the best book released in the year 2009.   Now, thanks to Regal Literary, we are happy to celebrate the release of this novel in trade paperback form by giving away a free copy!

How much, exactly, did we love Her Fearful Symmetry?   Well, we published not one or two but three separate reviews of the dramatic ghost story (September 23, 2009; September 28, 2009; November 7, 2009).   Here is a link to the first of the three reviews (“What Comes After”) that we posted:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

So, how can you win your own copy?   It’s simple, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and an e-mail address to: Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell me why stories about ghosts and/or twins are so very interesting (at least I find them so).   There are no right or wrong answers, just tell me what you think.   You have until midnight PST on Friday, September 10, 2010 to submit your entry(s).

The winner, as drawn by Munchy the cat, will be notified via e-mail and will have 72 hours to provide a residential mailing address in the United States.   The winner’s copy of Her Fearful Symmetry will be shipped directly to her/him by Regal Literary.   The book will not be sent to a business address or a P.O. box.  This is it for the simple rules.

Good luck and good reading!

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Only Us

I’m coming home again, home again / And I hear you calling me home again / I am coming home again    Peter Gabriel

When the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things.    Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

So here is what we know about The Lovely Bones, a novel by Alice Sebold.   It was first published in 2002 and took seven full years to gain some traction.   Then it belatedly became a best-seller in book form and was made into a relatively successful film.   Some claim that the unique story was first recognized by young adults who gravitated toward the tale of a young woman who was killed by a serial murderer; a girl who monitors the search for her killer from heaven, while also monitoring the activities of her father, mother, maternal grandmother and sister.

Sebold herself has indicated that she wrote the story in order to give life to the invisible victims, the young long-haired women, killed by serial killers like Ted Bundy.   We also know, by a quick glance at a few websites where readers can post their comments, that most readers seem to experience either a love or hate relationship with this novel.   Which makes me different, I suppose…   I didn’t find The Lovely Bones to be one of the best stories I’ve read nor one of the worst.   I would not assign it an A or an F but, if placed on a polygraph, I’d give it – at best – a C+ to B- grade.

Much credit goes to Sebold for fashioning a unique story that starts off so, well, so tragically.   We feel the death of Susie Salmon and take it personally.   More than anything, we want justice and revenge.   We want to see her killer, Mr. Harvey, captured and punished and this is why we keep reading.   And this is where the problems begin.   After such a great start, the story seems to plod along for chapter after chapter.  

As with the twins in Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, ghosts are real in Sebold’s novel.   They appear to the living “like an unexplained breeze,” or an image that’s there for just a second.   But I wished so very much that this story – which at its end still felt like the skeleton of a story – had been written by Niffenegger who would have added flesh and blood.   Perhaps the biggest flaw with Bones is that the villain eventually meets, or is given, justice in an artificial manner that comes off as totally fake…  It won’t be disclosed here, but it’s an inside joke on something that occurs earlier in the telling, something juvenile.

Sebold’s strength is in creating an artificial world, if not a universe, in which the living and the dead miss each other.   She uses her story to assure us that life goes on (even in death), that love conquers all, and that unless we move forward each day, “Life is a perpetual yesterday for us.”   Yet, I doubt that I would purchase another work by this author and (based on the audio excerpts I’ve heard) I would certainly not be interested in reading The Almost Moon.

This review is based on the unabridged 10.5 hour audiobook (9 CD) version of The Lovely Bones ($19.98 U.S./ $24.98 Canada), read by the author and purchased by the reviewer.

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The Best Book of 2009

It really was not close, although Everything Matters!: A Novel by Ron Currie, Jr. is a very, very good runner-up.   Instead we have no choice but to choose Audrey Niffenegger’s follow-up to The Time Traveler’s Wife.   Yes, Her Fearful Symmetry is this site’s choice as the very best book published in 2009.

How good was it?   Well, we felt we needed to post three separate reviews to do the book justice.   Even then we likely fell short.   Our reviews were posted here on September 23, 2009 (6 days before the book’s release); September 28, 2009; and on November 7, 2009.   To revisit these reviews type the following search terms into the Search It! box on the right:  her fearful symmetry; take two…; what comes after.  

We can only hope that Ms. Niffenegger is now working on a third novel for release in 2011.   We will wait, anxiously – helplessly hoping.

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