Tag Archives: family novel

Do Unto Others

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Finding Jake: A Novel by Bryan Reardon (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 288 pages)

Bryan Reardon’s Finding Jake offers an unusual twist on a story that should never have to be told in the first place. Quick – school shooting. You didn’t even flinch, did you?

In Finding Jake, Simon is Jake’s father. At a young age he encourages Jake, an introvert, to befriend another boy, Doug, who is a loner, ostracized by his peers, angry, and – we unfortunately find out later, a sociopath.

Simon is a stay-at-home dad who grows distant from his attorney wife, Rachel, and mostly plays the role of “good dad,” as he is at once tolerant of and troubled by Jake’s relationship with Doug.

And then, it happens. Jake is implicated as an accomplice and, as the truth unfolds, Simon becomes obsessed with “finding” him. Is he dead or alive? Was he involved?

The story is mostly about perceptions and judgment. Simon is somewhat of an outcast in his home parent role, Jake is different from most kids, and Doug is bullied by his classmates. It turns out that people are eager to jump to conclusions about things in order to make themselves feel better. Simon himself is not immune to this as he draws conclusions based on his experiences; conclusions he must examine and re-examine throughout the novel.

And there is a hero in the story; a likely or unlikely one who speaks loudly via his silence.

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Finding Jake examines a tragedy from the point of view of innocent bystanders, the ones that must live on – not the perpetrator of evil; therein lies its uniqueness. The book is quite well-written in parts, but is somewhat inconsistent overall. Nevertheless, the reader is eager to get to the end, and author Reardon admirably and capably holds one’s attention from the first page to the final one.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“I devoured Finding Jake.” Alice LaPlante, author of Circle of Wives and Turn of Mind.

Finding Jake tells the harrowing tale of a deadly school shooting from a father’s perspective… The suspense is killing, but it’s nothing compared with this father’s anguish as he tries to find his son – the real boy, not the one he thought he knew.” New York Times Book Review

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Not So Harmonious

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Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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San Franciscan Nights

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The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel by Jennifer Dwight (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds/Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing… Bob Dylan, “Chimes of Freedom”

In Jennifer Dwight’s The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, Mercedes Bell, a recently widowed mother of a teenage daughter, is down to her last out when fortune steps in and she obtains a job as a paralegal at the law firm of Crenshaw, Slayne and McDonough.

The bright, engaging newcomer enjoys some early success and things appear to be turning around for her when attorney Jack Soutane begins renting space at the firm. The two become an item and the future begins to look ever brighter. But, as is often the case, if things seem too good to be true, they often are.

Due to Jack’s somewhat shady reputation others are skeptical, but the trusting Mercedes opens up her heart and lets him in. He is a charmer but, soon, little things become big things; as the story shifts into another gear, not even the great Jack Soutane can maintain the level of deceit necessary to cover up his past and escape the present.

The reader eagerly sticks with Dwight, knowing something is going to go wrong and trying to find out just what that something will be. Even as that something becomes more obvious, Dwight, a former paralegal herself, creates enough intrigue to lead to a satisfying conclusion. In fact, some of the better writing begins at the point in which Jack’s fate is finally revealed, while Mercedes yet has plenty to unravel.

The ending is a happy – if somewhat improbable, one, and seems to fit the overall message of hope that is pervasive throughout the book (and inherent in Bell’s character).

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Bell is set in the San Francisco Bay Area where Dwight spent a great deal of her life. It is her fourth book but first novel. Here’s hoping she can keep it up.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Mercedes Bends

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The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel by Jennifer Dwight (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

This tale that spans 10 years is crafted to fit the locale, the San Francisco Bay Area/East Bay, the era, the 1980s to the 90s, and the human foibles of a rich array of characters carefully structured and revealed by debut author Jennifer Dwight. More a novel than a mystery, The Tolling of Mercedes Bell lulls readers by the rhythmic pace that is the unfolding of a new life for recently-widowed Mercedes and her seven-year-old daughter, Germaine.

Mercedes is an emotionally fragile, yet stubborn quasi paralegal. Her drunkard husband’s single car crash has left her penniless and in desperate need of a job. She and Germaine leave a rental house in Piedmont to settle into a rental cottage in an undesirable part of Oakland. Author Dwight has obviously frequented the areas she describes in minute detail. Coincidentally, my wife lived just blocks from the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland where Mercedes buys her newspapers and she vouched for the authenticity of the writing.

tolling of mercedes bell

The biggest shift from the minor key of the musical score, yes this is movie material, comes when Mercedes has realized her goal of steady employment at a law firm. Given the era, the notion of a tall, handsome single lawyer becoming infatuated with her is no surprise; however, what follows is eye opening to say the least!

Long-time residents of northern California may have an advantage in figuring out the conclusion.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on May 3, 2016.

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Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

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The Daylight Marriage: A Novel by Heidi Pitlor (Algonquin Paperbacks, $15.95, 254 pages)

“You could have done better but I don’t mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/Don’t think twice, it’s alright.” Bob Dylan

I’ve noted in the past that the hardest type of book to review is one that’s not an “A” or “F’; it’s a “C.” Cs, of course, represent average work. This one’s about a C-.

The Daylight Marriage has a plot that’s oddly reminiscent of Gone Girl. The attractive wife of a nice guy leaves the house and never returns. Yes, she “disappears without a trace.”

In this novella – it only runs for 245 pages; the reader figures out the ending within the first few dozen pages and yet it’s advertised as being something of a thriller. The blurb from Stephen King states, “I turned the pages with increasing dread.” Maybe King was given a different galley; stranger things have happened.

Or maybe King was referring to the simple dread that accompanies predictability. (If you read Gone Girl, or saw the movie, you know that nice husbands don’t kill their wives. Pitlor claims to have been influenced in her writing by the headline story of Laci Peterson, so there may be exceptions to this rule.)

Oh, the back of the book is loaded with positive blurbs form the likes of King, Tom Perrotta, Geraldine Brooks, Entertainment Weekly (the gospel of entertainment), and the Los Angeles Review of Books. And yet, for once, I think the readers who order from Amazon have gotten it right. On Amazon, this book has a 3 out of 5 stars rating.

There’s more. Perhaps because of the disappointment that accompanies this read, Amazon is offering this $15.95 list price book for an astonishing 79% off of its list price, or $3.39. That probably tells you all you need to know.

daylight marriage

You might pick this one up if you are willing to gamble with $3.39 of your hard-earned savings. If not, it’s best to pass it up.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Remember this…

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The Inseparables: A Novel by Stuart Nadler (Little, Brown, $27.00, 339 pages)

This is a family novel that’s populated by several unique and interesting characters.

There’s Henrietta, a cross between Erica Jong and J.D. Salinger. Decades ago she wrote a then-scandalous novel, The Inseparables, which brought her instant notoriety. She’s sought to avoid the spotlight since then. However, after the sudden and unexpected death of her chef husband Harold – a man who ran his restaurant of meals cooked with butter, more butter and even more butter into the ground, she approves a re-release of the book as she desperately needs money.

Oona is Henrietta’s orthopedist doctor daughter, who’s separated from her husband and who unwisely decides to have an affair with her former marriage counselor.

Spencer, Oona’s soon to be ex-husband, is a lawyer who quit his job with a major firm after one year. He desired instead to be a house husband, taking care of his daughter and smoking marijuana. Smoking pot is basically the one thing that Spencer excels at.

Lydia, the teenage daughter of Oona and Spencer, is an extremely bright student who decides to leave her public high school for a private prep school, where she will manage to have herself suspended. That suspension causes Lydia to consider a self-expulsion from the institution.

All of these individuals have led less than perfect lives, but they’re all striving to find contentment even if it kills them. They will find that happiness is not a result of having a best seller or owning a restaurant or living in a fancy city high-rise. It’s about the simple things – the free things in life such as the time a grandmother and granddaughter spend together:

They had been together most of the morning… Henrietta had not done this enough. Been in a restaurant with just her granddaughter. Traveled on a train with her. In the beginning it was the kind of thing she had imagined would happen more. Decent grandmotherhood, she had always suspected, depended on being able to do this well – to dote, to dispense wisdom, to spoil an unruly precocious young person with gifts and irreverent humor… Had she written down her goals for being a grandmother, this kind of thing would have been part of her hopes.

This is also a story about what it means to be an American in a time of rapid change. A time when a failing fancy European restaurant is downtown one day, replaced by a thriving taqueria the next. But these are just businesses, just buildings – structures that can be renovated or rebuilt or destroyed. People go on, families survive; the earth somehow thrives and surrounds us with beauty and hope.

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Before she gets up to go, she turned to see it again. The flat earth. The hills. All the good acres and the wind in the trees.

Remember this.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This novel was released on July 16, 2016.

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New Morning

“So happy just to see you smile/Underneath this sky of blue/On this new morning, new morning/On this new morning with you.” – Bob Dylan

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Honest, Uplifting, Revealing… Excellent.

Its. Nice. Outside.: A Novel by Jim Kokoris (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 320 pages)

Jim Kokoris’ 2002 novel, The Rich Part of Life, which has been published in 15 different languages, earned the Friends of American Writers Award for Best First Novel. I have not read that book, but I plan to do so now. Having just ripped through his latest, Its. Nice. Outside., it’s easy to see why Rich was so highly acclaimed.

Its. Nice. Outside. is the tale of many things, “Family, Family, Family, USA,” among them (one must read the book to understand this reference). But the truth is, in today’s world, how does one even begin to imagine a Leave It to Beaver perfect family? How does one define love? How do young adults ever actually leave the nest or get their feet under them? How does one forgive? Who does one blame when one has run out of people to blame?

How do adults move past broken dreams? Does anyone ever really know how and when it’s time to let go? And how does one, in the midst of the chaos that has now become a normalized reality, manage to simultaneously raise a disabled child?

When John Nichols embarks on a cross-country journey with his adult autistic child, Ethan, to attend his adult daughter Karen’s wedding; and when he joins up with celebrity daughter, Mindy; and when he finally encounters his ex-wife, Mary, things have deteriorated so much in the present that the past begins to matter much less. To hold grudges, to forgive, to have the courage to move on, to have the courage to let it go… Its. Nice. Outside. is a story of love and humanity, with these five characters the vessels through which important themes are channeled. Yet they are real enough to be your neighbors.

Any flaw in the telling is so minor that it does not merit referencing.

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After many swimming pools, potty stops, Cracker Barrels, hotel rooms, and pickles, the reader who is continuously compelled to turn to the next page, regrettably comes to the end of this great novel. The genius of it is that Kokoris manages to accomplish this in 308 pages. This is indicative of someone who knows how to both write a very, very good story and provoke an honest look in the mirror.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Life in the Slow Lane

All Men Fear Me

All Men Fear Me: An Alafair Tucker Mystery by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, $26.95, 302 pages)

Well, now, Charlie, just because I disapprove of this war doesn’t mean I’m a traitor. I think of myself as a patriot, and a patriot of the real kind. This is my big, messy country. I love it. I want for it to be the best country there is. If it suffer ills, I want to cure them. I want for every citizen to enjoy all its rights and privileges, and I believe it is my duty to try and help that happen.

One part history lesson, one part family drama and two parts man’s inhumanity to man is the recipe for Donis Casey’s eighth installment of life in rural Oklahoma in 1917. Alafair Tucker is the center of her large family – 10 children ranging in age from 25 to four years of age, husband Shaw, and her brother Robin. Robin, a labor organizer, is visiting after being away for ten years. The rabid fans of war and nationalism in the small town of Boynton view Robin’s organizing efforts as Socialist-leaning and contrary to the ways of true Americans.

The country has recently entered World War I and a draft has been set in place to raise an army. Alafair is trying mightily to balance her love of her brother with the fervent longings of her 16-year-old son, Charlie, who desperately wants to enlist in the military. The townspeople of Boynton are divided between being suspicious of anyone perceived as “foreign” and their loyalty to long-time friends and neighbors. Kurt Lukenbach, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Germany is married to one of Alafair’s daughters. The more rabid patriots in town regard Kurt with suspicion and hostility.

There is trouble all around in Oklahoma. It’s as though the wood for a fire has been laid and along comes a man with a can of gasoline and a match to hasten the process. The stranger in the bowler hat who arrives in town at the start of the story is literally the catalyst that brings latent hate and fear to a flash point.

Author Casey takes her sweet time setting up the action in this book. Although it is considered a mystery novel, it is more of a history lesson with a covert mystery imbedded within the text. Readers who enjoy a slowly paced and thoroughly detailed story will enjoy this installment of the Tucker family goings on.

As with many books that feature the daily diet of the characters, All Men Fear Me has at the back several recipes featured in the story. Additionally, a calendar of the war rules pertaining to food is listed for readers who curiously enjoy details with their murders.

Recommended to readers fond of life in the slow lane.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on November 3, 2015.

You can read a review of Hell With The Lid Blown Off: An Alafair Tucker Mystery here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/were-off-to-see-the-wizard/

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Don’t Talk

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Things Unsaid: A Novel by Diana Y. Paul (She Writes Press, $16.95, 300 pages)

“She had a college-age daughter now who needed her attention. Her daughter’s dream choice was Stanford. Everyone deserved to have dreams. But in order to make her daughter’s dreams a reality, Jules needed to change. Now. And fast. And her parents had to change, too, or they would all be destroyed.”

Leo Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Things Unsaid is a novel about a very unhappy family; it’s a tale which may prove Tolstoy wrong as they appear to be unhappy in a common way. This is a typical American family in which each member cares far too much about what other family members think, do and say; for some reason, each member of the family is afraid of every other member.

Paul’s novel makes for an engaging, yet often disturbing, read. My suspicion is that readers who hail from highly dysfunctional families will get the most from it; they will identify with its characters. Those raised in emotionally healthy families – where people actually speak and listen to each other, and value each other’s hopes and dreams, may find it nearly incomprehensible.

Things is about a woman who sacrifices almost everything in her adult life, including her husband and daughter, to please her extremely demanding, elderly, parents. She must hit bottom before seeing that she’s throwing her own life away. It’s a valuable morality play, but I’d like to see Paul tackle something lighter and brighter the next time around.

Recommended for a select audience.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

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Perfect World

The Fragile World: A Novel by Paula Treick DeBoard (Mira, $14.99, 415 pages)

the fragile world

Synopsis:

The Kaufmans have always considered themselves to be a normal, happy family. Curtis is a physics teacher at a local high school. His wife, Kathleen, restores furniture for upscale boutiques. Daniel is away at college on a prestigious music scholarship, and twelve-year-old Olivia is a happy-go-lucky kid whose biggest concern is passing her next math test. And then comes the middle-of-the-night phone call that changes everything. Daniel has been killed in what the police are calling a “freak” accident, and the remaining Kaufmans are left to flounder in their grief.

The anguish of Daniel’s death is isolating, and it’s not long before this once-perfect family finds itself falling apart. As time passes and the wound refuses to heal, Curtis becomes obsessed with the idea of revenge, a growing mania that leads him to pack up his life and his anxious teenage daughter and set out on a collision course to right a wrong.

Like the film Ordinary People, The Fragile World is a story about imperfect people, beset by tragedy, doing their best to get by. It’s a story narrated by both Curtis and Olivia. Not many writers would base the events of a novel in Sacramento, California or Oberlin, Ohio but DeBoard uses both locations. It’s a risk, and it works. It enables her to realistically paint the Kaufmans as a humble family – a family whose breadwinner drives an over-used Ford Explorer with a bad transmission. There’s nothing glamorous to see here, people.

The story is about a father and daughter road trip, from Sacramento to Omaha. Olivia thinks that the purpose of the trip is to reunite her with her mother, Kathleen, who could not live with Curtis’s unending mourning of Daniel’s death. But Curtis plans to deposit Olivia with her mother while he travels to Oberlin to confront the person he believes was responsible for his son’s death.

Initially, the reader has the impression that he or she knows how this tale will play out. Don’t bet on it. DeBoard throws in some unexpected events – such as having Curtis show up at his hated father’s death bed in the Chicago area – before the denouement in tiny Oberlin. Curtis finds the man he’s looking for and he’s got a gun in his hand. Knowing this does not provide a spoiler because DeBoard tips the chessboard over. The book is worth reading to discover how DeBoard wraps things up.

The Fragile World is also worth reading because it perfectly examines the imperfections of family life. There’s a father who hates his own father so much that he’s never communicated with him during his adult life. There’s a daughter who blames herself for not being what her brother was. There’s a wife and mother who cannot accept or understand why her husband and daughter are unable to simply move on with their lives after a tragedy. These are ordinary people who are hurting, people who feel pain. They inhabit a fragile world, one with which many readers will identify.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Emotionally powerful… This bold and moving story is absolutely unforgettable.” New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf

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