Tag Archives: book reviews

Livin’ La Vida Loca

The Reason You’re Alive: A Novel by Matthew Quick (Harper, $25.99, 226 pages)

reason you're alive

Living the Crazy Life

The Reason You’re Alive is, supposedly, a novel about a Holden Caulfield-like character who has reached the age (68) at which he has a seven-year-old granddaughter.  He’s angry (of course) at the government that sent him to Vietnam in his youth, ultra-conservative (OK), and perhaps more than slightly deranged.  However, author Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook) begins the story with his version of charming writing.  There is, for example, a scene in which the main character, David Granger, sits down to an imaginary tea party with granddaughter Ella.  It’s sweet and cute.  And the reader is informed that it just so happens to be the case that Ella is the “spitting image” of Granger’s dead wife – by suicide (naturally).

Jessica Granger was a painter who apparently did little else with her life – David screamed at her on what proved to be her last night on earth, “You have to contribute SOMETHING!” – except for providing Granger with a son; a son which he did not father.  Quick, as Granger, writes beautifully about Jessica:

I feel like shedding a tear or two when I think about a nineteen-year-old Jessica looking up from a canvas as big as her, smiling at me with paint smudges all over her face, like camouflage.  Her long, brown hair is always braided with pigtails, and she is perpetually in overalls, as if she were a farmer riding on a tractor.  All she needed was a piece of hay hanging out of her mouth.  You could see the light in her eyes back then.  It was as bright as goddamn June moonbeams shimmering off ocean waves still warm from day’s sun.   

At this point in the novella, not a novel, the story is quirky with some parallels to the style of The Catcher in the Rye.  But this style on the part of the writer does not last, does not hold.  It’s not long after one’s approached the halfway point of the story that Quirk goes haywire on us.  The suspension of disbelief disappears as he relates events that ring as fully implausible.  The story goes from Catcher in the Rye to Catch-22; from simply quirky to fantastical, that is, odd and bizarre.

The outright crazy part of the book focuses on a bonkers Native American soldier, Clayton Fire Bear, who Granger served with in ‘Nam.  Fire Bear – who took scalps from dead Viet Cong soldiers, sounds like a character that one would have found in Catch-22.  Granger is determined to find Fire Bear in the U.S. and achieve some type of closure with him.  There are other inane things that the story focuses on – things which I won’t waste time relating.  Suffice it to say that, in the words of a Beatles song, it’s all too much.

There are two possible explanations for the author’s diversions.  Perhaps Quick decided to transform Granger from a more than slightly unstable individual to a fully insane unreliable narrator because he believed it was clever from an intellectual – “brilliant author,” standpoint.  If so, it’s too clever by half.  The other explanation is that Quick was simply enjoying himself at the reader’s expense, setting the reader up for what seemed like a serious journey only to drop him/her into the twilight zone.  If the latter is the case, then Quick has fashioned a work that is intentionally and illogically unrestrained.

At the least, this work is inconsistent and unsatisfying.  It starts off as an engaging look at a troubled human being – one the reader can partially relate to, and concludes as a work whose faults will be overlooked by those who prefer convoluted, strange literary forests to sensical, sensible trees.

Bottom line: This book is not The Catcher in the Rye and it’s quite far – incredibly far, from being enjoyable.  Do yourself a favor and pass on it.  You have better things to do with your time.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Little Girl Gone

Little Girl Gone: A Novel by Margaret Fenton (Create Space, $10.10, 266 pages)

Little Girl Gone

Margaret Fenton’s second novel – following Little Lamb Lost, takes the reader once more into the world of Birmingham, Alabama social worker Claire Conover.  As is typical for social workers, Claire is carrying a full caseload.  Her caring attitude is tempered with a realistic approach to dealing with runaway and discarded children.  A stony-faced young teen girl who was found sleeping in a cardboard box proves to be quite the challenge for Claire.

“Sandy,” at least that’s the name she reluctantly gives Claire, won’t provide any assistance with her details.  She’s very slim, not starving, but definitely willing to go out for breakfast when Claire offers to take her.  Thus begins the saga of reuniting “Sandy” with her family.  The story unfolds naturally as Claire does her job using the skills she has developed over years in the job.  Ms. Fenton infuses her characters with down-to-earth feelings to which the reader can easily relate.

The men in Claire’s life are Grant, her techie boyfriend and Kirk, a clever newspaper reporter.  There’s mutual attraction between Kirk and Claire; however, she knows better than to be caught up in a fling with a flirt when she has calm and reliable Grant in her life.  Kirk has provided helpful insights in past cases and is once again a source of information and strategic planning that brings him into a team-like relationship with Claire.

Little Girl Gone back cover

Ms. Fenton is a confident and strong writer who has lived the work she portrays.  Much like a police procedural, Little Girl Gone takes the reader behind the scenes into real life situations that are both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Crisp dialogue coupled with excellent scene-setting descriptions make this a most satisfying read.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

 

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Hard to Grip

Hard to Grip: A Memoir of Youth, Baseball, and Chronic Illness by Emil DeAndreis (Schaffner Press, $16.95, 326 pages)

hard to grip

“You, see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  – Jim Bouton (Ball Four)

Emil DeAndreis is an excellent high school baseball player in a weak conference.  He gets his chance at Division I baseball at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.  Hawaii at Hilo is far from a top tier program, but Division I is Division I.  DeAndreis is a borderline D-1 player, but he is a left-handed pitcher – always a commodity.

Hard to Grip is DeAndreis’s story, subtitled a memoir of youth, baseball, and chronic illness.  Shortly after he graduates from college, he signs a professional contract to play baseball in Belgium, only to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  There are flashes of promise in his writing.  He saves the best for last.

As a high school pitching coach, he tries to express to his players that everyone’s career ends one day, and closes the book with the line, “I tell them it’s like a disease you learn to live with.”

DeAndreis chronicles his passion for baseball, his disillusionment following his diagnosis, and his battle to come to grips with the fact that his life is irrevocably changed.  He does find love, and ultimately reconciles with his loss of having to prematurely let go of the game.

The book is good.  Those who have dreamed of playing and had their careers cut short for whatever reason can probably relate.  It is an honest telling from the get-go, and the parallel of his best friend Charlie – who is more talented, and his challenges in pro ball constitute another side of the story told by DeAndreis. (DeAndreis leaves it up to the reader to determine what happened to Charlie.)

Unfortunately, the book does not have many engaging moments.  Too much of the book is a retelling of events that fail to resonate with the reader.  DeAndreis might have done more to draw the reader in; to see that the events that happened in his life (“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” John Lennon) are the types of unexpected things that happen with others.

hard to grip too

DeAndreis is currently working on a novel, and his fledgling talent may well make it a successful one.  There are high points in Hard to Grip, but not enough of them to sustain the typical reader’s interest from start to finish.  This is a niche book for hardcore baseball fans.  Perhaps the writing promise hinted at in Hard to Grip will fully manifest itself in his future work.

Recommended, for sports fans and/or one-time athletes.

Dave Moyer

Hard to Grip was published on April 1, 2017.  “A vibrant depiction of a ballplayer that finds his way (in life) despite losing his ability to play the game he loves.”  Mike Krukow

Dave Moyer is a public school district superintendent, a drummer who hopes to play on stage with The Who one day, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

 

 

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You’ll Never Know

hallie ephron dear

You’ll Never Know, Dear: A Novel of Suspense by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, $26.99, 304 pages)

This is the year that two of my favorite authors have published books about sisters whose roots are in the South.  Joshilyn Jackson’s The Almost Sisters is an excellent novel that explores the deep-seated social rules that have persisted through generations.  You’ll Never Know, Dear by Hallie Ephron (Night Night, Sleep Tight) explores the haunting, mysterious disappearance of a little girl and the impact of that tragedy on her mother, older sister and law enforcement.

Seven-year-old Lissie was entrusted to look out for her four-year-old sister Janey.  Granted, the disappearance took place forty years ago in the front yard of a home in a sleepy, small town in South Carolina.  Perhaps even today a mom in a similar setting might do the same, maybe.  That same house is still occupied by the aging mom, Miss Sorrel.  Lissie (now Lis) is the divorced mother of Vanessa, a post-graduate student.  Lis cares for her mother and broods over the terrible time she was distracted by her imagination and wandered off into the woods near the house.  Her failed marriage and subsequent lack of support prompted Lis to return to South Carolina years ago.

Each year since Janey’s disappearance, a classified ad placed in the newspaper by Miss Sorrel marks the date.  A reward is offered for the return of Janey’s porcelain doll that vanished along with the little girl.  The suspense builds after a woman with a Harley-Davidson tattoo answers the ad.  Clearly, she is not the sort of person who possesses a hand-painted china doll.

Miss Sorrel and her next-door neighbor, Evelyn Dumont have a decades-long friendship centered around restoring antique dolls, including the personalized china dolls Miss Sorrel created in years past.  Each doll’s hair and features were fashioned to resemble the lucky girl whose parents commissioned Miss Sorrel to create the one-of-a-kind treasure.

Hallie Ephron provides readers with an in-depth look at the art of doll making.  The marvelous details include references to Madame Alexander dolls.  This reviewer has a modest collection of these lovely dolls that began with a much-loved eighth birthday present.  The book’s targeted audience is first and foremost ladies of middle age and older who have a fondness for the dolls of their youth.

Suspense and mystery novel lovers will appreciate the twisting story line that includes more than a few family secrets.  Ms. Ephron has written another spellbinding tale that does more than rest on the laurels of her past fine works.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released on June 6, 2017.

Click here to read a review of The Almost Sisters: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/sisters-of-the-moon/

 

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Rundown

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion by Catriona Menzies-Pike (Crown, $25.00, 256 pages)

long run

In The Long Run, Catriona Menzies-Pike seeks to be inspirational when it comes to summarizing the healing power of running.  Unfortunately, the memoir comes across as flat and turgid.  The latter is the case when Menzies-Pike writes as a feminist.  It’s interesting but her heart does not seem to be in it.  The topical connection between the sport of running and social oppression is weak, to say the least.  Running appears to have empowered Menzies-Pike, so it’s unclear how the feminist complaints fit in.

“Women run when they are chased; women must run from predators to stay chaste.  It is not natural for women to run unless they’re chased; chaste women have no need to run.”

It’s troubling that Menzies-Pike gets some basic details wrong.  At one point she writes of “the weight shifting from the ball to the heel of my foot as I move forward.”  That’s not how people run; the heel hits the ground before one’s weight is transferred to the ball of the foot.  Was she running backwards?

This slim work may benefit a few by making the case that running can empower a person.  Menzies-Pike notes that there’s “nothing… as reliable as running for elevations of mood and emotion, for a sense of self-protection.”  Well and good, but there’s something removed and distant about her writing style.

A novice runner would be better off reading the modern classic What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.  Much better off.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  This book was released on May 23, 2017.

Catriona Menzies-Pike is the editor of the Sydney Review of Books, a link to which can be found on our Blogroll.

 

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Ten Years After

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki (Norton, $21.95, 259 pages)

goodbye things

Goodbye, Things was a good read.  Although I anticipated yet another primer on how to clear out the clutter in one’s life, it was also a memoir detailing author Fumio Sasaki’s discovery that his value in the world was not his possessions.  Sasaki had created a persona for himself that was a deep thinker who read tons of books, a connoisseur of food and wine, and a collector of rare, antique cameras.  He realized that he had been living for ten years in an apartment crammed full of stuff that he didn’t use.

Hundreds of books lined the shelves of the hallway and were piled up in the rest of the place and yet they went unread.  Sasaki knew the titles and authors’ names, but not much else.  An increasing number of CDs and DVDs were also part of the mix.  Antique cameras languished on shelves.  He didn’t even touch them.

By Sasaki’s own admission, the apartment was a dirty mess.  Food also played a part in his overstuffed life.  He gained weight by eating and drinking in excess while surrounded by stuff.  The weight gain led to increased feelings of worthlessness.  Sasaki constantly compared himself and his life situation to others he had known since college.  His value diminished when he did so.

As an editor for a small publisher, Sasaki had the basics of writing.  The publishing business was suffering because it relied upon blockbuster sales.  His livelihood was fading away.  At the same time, he became aware of the booming minimalist movement, and in particular author Marie Kondo.

Sasaki became energized by his need to change, both himself and his career.  He embraced minimalism and documented his process.  After whittling down his possessions to a drastic few, he’s now rethinking the idea of having almost nothing.  He had a terrible inferiority complex.  The stuff he hoarded was protecting him from the deep-seated fear he had of being judged by others.  The goofiest outcome was the realization that he was living in a filthy mess!

goodbye things sasaki

Goodbye, Things is divided into distinct parts.  While the natural inclination is to read a book from beginning to end, Sasaki encourages his reader to explore the chapters based on whatever topic seems appealing.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: Fumio Sasaki lives in a 215-square-foot apartment in Tokyo, Japan.

 

 

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Law and Order

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Random House/Bantam, $16.00, 437 pages)

If you loved Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, read this.

defending jacob amazon

One of my favorite films is the Al Pacino classic And Justice for All, which might as well have been titled And Justice for No One.  In my time as a reviewer for Joseph’s Reviews, I have reviewed many crime/suspense/mystery/call them what you will novels, because many people enjoy reading these books.  Most, in my opinion, are average at best.  They appeal to a certain readership, and they get published.

The ones that distinguish themselves stand out for reasons that can sometimes be explained – for example, they actually tell a story, the reader cares about the characters, and they defy the formulaic conventions that permeate run-of-the-mill books.  Other times the reasons are more subtle.  A writer can just plain write – simple as that, and the book stands on its own, independent of any pre-conceived convention.  In those cases, things become a bit more subjective.

William Landay’s Defending Jacob succeeds on both accounts and is one heckuva book, period.  For people who enjoy the genre, it is an absolute must read.  Landy tells the story of Ben Rifkin’s murder in the first person, which is a brilliant decision.  This point of view adds to the suspense and human dilemma faced by the main character, Andy Barber, and his family.  A less skillful writer might not have pulled this off, but as it stands, the decision perfectly advances the story.  The reader suspends judgment and is pulled in multiple directions throughout the entire novel.

Barber is the town’s assistant district attorney and the initial investigator on the Rifkin case.  Ben is brutally stabbed in a park on his way to school.  Eventually, Andy’s son, Jacob, a socially awkward teen who was bullied by Ben, is accused of the murder.  This creates further complications, including politics in the D.A.’s office.  On top of that, Andy’s conscience may not be the most reliable barometer, as he has spent his life trying to bury the fact that his father is serving a life sentence for murder.  Is there such a thing as a murder gene, a propensity for violence?

Jacob’s internet proclivities and childhood indiscretions don’t help him.  But do they add up to murder?

In the end, a second incident and the preponderance of the evidence appears to lead to a certain direction, but the plot is so carefully constructed that empathy for the narrator still tempers judgment, and – like in And Justice for All, sometimes justice is not absolute.  Sometimes the criminal justice system is only as good as the flawed humans who are entrusted to administer it.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school system superintendent, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Note: Defending Jacob is used as a textbook in Criminal Justice  introductory classes at California State University, Sacramento as it provides insight into the complexities of the criminal justice system.

 

 

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