Tag Archives: Atria Books

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The Holy or The BrokenA review of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and The Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light.

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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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The Roundup

The Roundup – Some Quick Looks at Books

Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine Books)  –  Gideon’s creative novel is an all-too-much-fun story of a mid-life crisis wife who elects to take part in a marriage survey, and then decides that she might have fallen in love with the researcher assigned to work with her.   “Soon I’ll have to make a decision – one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life.”   Will Wife 22 sacrifice everything for a man she’s never seen or spoken to (and only exchanged e-mail messages with)?   This is a story with an ending that the reader will never see coming – unless that reader just happens to remember a certain quite clever hit song from the year 1980.

“…when did the real world become so empty?   When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”   Wife 22 is a novel about current times, in which human beings communicate by each and every means except true personal, face-to-face communication.

Highly recommended.

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews (Riverhead Books)  –  Mathews came up with a great premise in this fictional account of a young John F. Kennedy.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly recruits JFK to be his spy in Europe during the period preceding the outbreak of World War II.   The engaging, charismatic personality of JFK is here, but the intelligence of the future world leader is missing in action.

Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love and Loss by Rosemarie Terenzo (Gallery Books)  –  John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s former executive assistant tells us about what it was like to have the “dream job” of working for America’s Prince.   It’s a fascinating account told by Terenzo, a young blue-collar Italian-American girl from the Bronx who became John’s scheduler and gatekeeper.   The problem is that it feels like half a memoir; the deaths of John and his wife Carolyn Bessette in July of 1999 tragically interrupted the charged personal lives chronicled here.   (Terenzo recalls that her final conversation with John was sadly  banal.)

Discretion: A Novel by Allison Leotta (Touchstone)  –  Some readers will no doubt find this to be an exciting political-thriller about a young woman killed while visiting a U.S. Congressman’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol Building.   But I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the main characters, especially the female protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis.   Curtis’s criminal investigation extends into the most sordid sexual aspects of the District of Columbia.   It just seemed unnecessarily overblown.

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria Books)  –  This is a sad, yet moving and life affirming true story of three impoverished children in Mexico whose parents abandon them in order to escape to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, the United States).   Overcoming many obstacles, the two sisters and their brother eventually find their way to Los Angeles, where they discover that their parents are living apart from each other.   Despite such a horrendous upbringing, the siblings survive and Reyna goes on to both forgive her dying father and to graduate from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Next Best Thing: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner.

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I’ll Follow the Sun

Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer (Atria Books, $24.99, 347 pages)

Take what you need…  Take what you want.   Figure it out, find it, do it.   That’s what he was doing.   That’s what he did.

Cathi Hanauer is one heck of a writer; she’s a woman who can write about serious things and funny things in equal proportions.   This may be because this is the way life is…  Sometimes it plays out the way we think it will, sometimes it shocks and astounds us, and sometimes things simply seem to happen at random.

In Gone, we meet Eve Adams, a mother of two and a wife, whose husband Eric has suddenly left their comfortable home in Massachusetts.   Eric, a once successful sculptor, said he would drive the ultra short-skirted babysitter home, and then simply failed to return.   Eve, the author of a decently selling reality-based diet book, finds out from the credit card statements that Eric has headed west to Arizona (his mother lives in Tucson) – and he’s apparently used the credit card to spend nights in hotels with the babysitter.

We run from our lives, from the mediocrity and the abandoned plans and dreams and the people we’re sick of, including ourselves.   But wherever we go, there we are.   And so we go back, to the people we love.   But you can’t really go back, of course.

The story is told in alternating chapters, first in Eve’s words and then in Eric’s.   As might be expected, each has a different perspective on the pressures that drove them apart.   Eve has had to become the family breadwinner since Eric seems to have lost his artistic inspirations.   Eric feels like a failure and comes to view Eve as overly harsh and judgmental – especially when compared to the babysitter Dria, who tells Eric that he’s both an artistic genius and a nice man.

…he didn’t lose himself around Eve.   If anything, he found himself through her, and lost himself when she wasn’t there to reflect it back to him: to praise his work, to admire what he did.   To love him.

Separated for many weeks, both Eve and Eric have some major decisions to make.   Eve needs to decide if she’ll ever forgive Eric once he returns, if he returns.   And Eric needs to determine if he can be the type of practical family man who can place earning a paycheck in front of his need to be creative (as he’s forced to admit that he hasn’t been a creative artist in years).

In Gone, Hanauer serves up not only an admirable family novel, but adds a couple of bonus items to the menu.   First, she does a fine job of describing the essence of Tucson, Arizona – a city she resided in while teaching writing at the University of Arizona.   (Bear down.)   Secondly, she offers a book-within-the-book, as Eve’s practical tips to dieting and nutrition will serve the average reader quite well.   The tips are both common sense-based and near-brilliant, and, if followed, may add years to one’s life.

One nice aspect about the conclusion of Gone is that the reader discovers that Eve and Eric both have new facets of themselves to reveal.   Neither is a stereotype, and each is a human being loaded with underlying strengths and weaknesses.   That’s the way life is.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Cathi Hanauer succeeds beautifully in creating a story that will make you care and keep turning the pages…”   Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion.   “It’s a compelling, big-hearted book.”   Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You.

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A review of Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer.

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Get Over It

From This Moment On: An Autobiography by Shania Twain (Atria Books, $27.99, 448 pages; Audioworks/Simon & Schuster Audio, $29.99, 7 CDs)

An autobiography from a 45-year-old?   Oh my, yes!   Shania Twain has done enough living in her 45 years to put most everyone else in her age group into the category of slacker.   Shania’s deep love of music and the comfort it has provided through a really hard life gives her the right to tell her story.   Although she has received the accolades only dreamed about by singer/songwriters the world over, it is doubtful many of them have experienced the level of childhood deprivation and anxiety that motivates her career.

The version reviewed here is an audio book that is unique because the introduction and epilogue are recorded in Shania’s own voice.   The text of the autobiography is read by Broadway actress and writer, Sherie Rene Scott.   Scott’s voice resonates with the simple, straightforward attitude conveyed by Shania’s words.   Most autobiographies are intended to provide the writer’s side of a story or an event of particular note.   In this case, the narrative serves to inform the public that becoming a world-wide success in the music industry is a daunting task with serious downsides.

Ms. Twain, who began her singing career very early in life as Eilleen Twain, did so at the prompting of her mother.   The family often did not have enough to eat or a secure roof over their heads.   The tale is straight out of a mournful country song.   Daddy and mommy are trapped in a cycle of poverty and spousal abuse, the children are forced to become self-indulgent at a very young age, and tragedy strikes just when Eileen thinks she has escaped the grip of her childhood.

There’s no need to dwell on the timeline or life events that serve as milestones.   The internet has taken care of the particulars for anyone who can use Google.   Rather, it is the one-on-one experience of hearing about Shania’s feelings of yearning and betrayal that are the payoff for a reader/listener.   In some way, the audio book seems the best way to experience her life.   True, there’s no checking back a few pages when a particular passage is noteworthy; however, enough of her wisdom comes across in the telling that the essence is clear and well experienced.

One curiosity of note is that the vocabulary and grammar in the book are well beyond the level of formal education that Shania received in her childhood.   She states that when she was out on her own, she spent time writing songs and playing music while her roommates attended college.   Perhaps Shania absorbed the tone of the more educated people around her.   There’s no doubt that she has a great capacity to learn and benefit from her diligent efforts.   That said, a thoughtful and sensitive editor no doubt assisted in making this a compelling read (or listen).

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A copy of the audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   From This Moment On is also available as an Audible Audio, Kindle Edition, and Nook Book download.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of From This Moment On: A Memoir by Shania Twain.

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Secret Agent Man

Kill Shot: An American Assassin Thriller by Vince Flynn (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $27.99, 385 pages)

Stanfield had always understood the risk of ordering a talented, highly motivated man to kill for his country.   The cold, detached killers were easier to predict.   Rapp, though, was far from dispassionate about his job.   He couldn’t kill these men fast enough.   It was his hatred for terrorists that drove him to kill with such efficiency.

Mitch Rapp is this country’s most dangerous secret weapon, at least when it comes to the world’s terrorists.   Rapp has a list of terrorists and he’s authorized to kill them all, one by one, with a single shot to the head.   Rapp is such a fearful killing machine that even within the covert walls of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he’s “off the books.”   (Rapp makes both Jason Bourne and James Bond look like caffeine-free figures.)

Rapp, you see, has a score to settle with the bad guys.   His girlfriend of years ago was aboard an airplane that was bombed out of the sky by a Libyan terrorist, and once Rapp has assumed his role of The American Assassin, he finds its his life’s calling.   But his bosses at The Company are afraid that he’s eventually going to have a slip and if he does – since officially he doesn’t exist – they will have to make sure that he’s terminated.

As the story opens, Rapp is headed to Paris to kill a terrorist staying in a posh hotel suite.   It appears that this is going to be a very easy kill – except that no one on the CIA’s advance team has bothered to tell Rapp that there’s a group of four heavily armed killers waiting for him in the adjacent room.   They’ve got 90 or so bullet rounds with Rapp’s name on them…  Has Mitch been set up by his own spooks – jealous of his sudden success – or is someone else working with the bad guys?

How would (Rapp) react if he was pulled in and shut down?   Not well, was Stansfield’s guess.   How would he react if he found out that someone at Langley was selling their secrets to their enemies?   By definition, that individual would be a traitor, and Stansfield had little doubt what Rapp would want to do to such a person.

Flynn writes quite knowingly and convincingly about the world of spies.   To his credit, he populates the tale with strong men – and with women who are just as strong, talented and cagey as their male counterparts.   Rapp has a love interest which gives the telling some breathing room between killings, and the love/sex scenes are tastefully done.   Finally, Flynn presents us with Stansfield Turner, a real-life CIA legend who appears “as himself” in these pages.

At the conclusion of Kill Shot, secret agent Rapp has learned a lot about his true friends and enemies; something that surprises this hardened assassin.   As the story concludes, a new partnership has been formed, and readers will anxiously await the next overtly-exciting chapter in The American Assassin series.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Kill Shot was released in February of this year.

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Tears in Heaven

History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books, $24.00, 252 pages)

“The tragedy of suicide is that only in its aftermath does everything that came before suddenly seem important and clear.”

This is a memoir that expresses the author’s unimaginable grief over the loss of a sister and a daughter within three and one-half months, and it is primarily a tribute to her late sister Kim.   Kim was just 21 when, after being dumped by her boyfriend, she killed herself by leaving her mother’s car running in the garage of the family home.   The work is an attempt by Bialosky to understand the depths of her sister’s long-time depression, and any hereditary factors that may have entered into it (this is a family that experienced three suicides in three generations).

In her personal research, Bialosky found that Kim had been depressed at  least since high school.   At that time she wrote:  “I wish I would get (a major illness) or something so I could just die.   I don’t want to live anymore this way.   It’s too unsatisfying…  I need a way out.   Please help!”

Bialosky also came to realize that her mother’s detachment from the realities of lie may have been a factor:  “Perhaps my mother was able to sustain herself through her dark times by creating a hazy world of dreams and fantasies for a future in which everything would eventually work out.”

“I have private conversations with Kim on the beach.   I am thinking about you, I say to her.   Can you hear me?”

Despite her careful and caring research, Bialosky winds up being unable to pinpoint the exact nature of her sister’s inherent struggle with life and living.   She comes to see that persons who have been affected by suicide are often twice victimized – first, by the unexpected (and often violent) death; second, by the stigma attached to the act.   She cites as an example a young male in her neighborhood who was ostracized at school after his sister killed herself…  Punishing one of the victims of the act thus turns into a type of psychological piling on; it’s no wonder that those who were closest to the person who committed suicide often feel lost – literally without direction – for long periods of time.

Bialosky  comes to find a measure of recovery and balance in her life by attending a monthly suicide survivors support group:  “…in the white room… sealed off from the cacophony of traffic on the avenue below us – …the litany of what ifs and why didn’t I and if only rings like a chorus of voices in a Greek tragedy…  It seems to me that it isn’t as if they wanted to die but more that they wished to feel better and didn’t know how.”

The author’s sister Kim left a suicide note:  “I know everyone loved me very much.   Please don’t feel you could have helped.   I am very happy now.   All my love, K”

This all-too-sad memoir reminds us that the world holds “mystery and terror far beyond our grasp,” but also contains a great measure of forgiveness, acceptance and eternal love.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note: The reviewer worked as a  volunteer suicide prevention counselor, and was taught that (as a counselor):  “You never lose someone and you never save someone.”   Mystery and terror, indeed.

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