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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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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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Sisters of the Moon

Almost Sisters: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

almost sisters

Every family has secrets that persist over generations.  When a family happens to have its roots in a small town in Alabama, long-standing Southern mores bring added depth to its history.  Author Joshilyn Jackson has written a family tale worthy of high praise, The Almost Sisters.  Her main character, cartoonist Leia Birch, is the family outlier.  Her stepsister, Rachel, is the conventional, perfectionist Southern wife who resides in a faux-Tara home with her husband, Jake, and daughter, Lavender.

Leia Birch is not just a cartoonist; she’s the artist behind a DC Comics limited series, Violence in Violet.  The success of the series brought Leia to a comic-book convention in Atlanta where she was the featured artist.  Months later Leia has a secret that she knows will only be met with acceptance by her beloved grandmother, Miss Birchie.

Miss Birchie has her own secrets; although, if she can’t stay quiet in church, at least half of Birchville will find out.  The town, founded by her family, retains many vestiges of the old South.  There is the white neighborhood and the colored one.  People have their places in society and the ridged structure rarely bends to accommodate modern beliefs from outside.

Leia not only has a secret, she has a contract to write and illustrate the prequel for her Violence in Violet series.  The pressure is on as she drives to Birchville to confide in her grandmother.  Little does she suspect that what awaits her may be beyond what she’s able to handle.  There is more than one set of sisters.

Readers will be drawn into the fascinating threads of Author Jackson’s tale.  This book may be fiction but it could also be drawn from real life.  Ms. Jackson is that good at conveying the humanity of each of her unforgettable characters.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  Almost Sisters was released on July 11, 2017.

 

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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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Curiously Consistent

Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone: A Novel by Phaedra Patrick (Park Row Books, $24.99, 368 pages)

rise and shine benedict

Fans of Phaedra Patrick’s debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, will be delighted with her next heartfelt novel, Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone.  Ms. Patrick has created a signature theme that permeates the tales.  The main character is a man adrift in life, not connecting with reality.  The setting is a small village in Yorkshire, England.

Benedict Stone is a jeweler, as was his father before him.  Stone’s wife, Estelle, has decamped from their home, ostensibly to look after the apartment of a friend who is working in New York.  Benedict knows that Estelle has tired of his obsession with having children.  So far that hasn’t happened for them.  He’s proposed adoption and Estelle has rebuffed this alternative.  The emotional distance between them is growing, much to Benedict’s horror.  He relies on food to calm his nerves and we all know where that leads.

Stone’s jewelry store is fading into oblivion, due in no small part to Benedict’s insistence on making simple pieces that aren’t on trend with popular styles.  He is stubborn and resists change, especially when it comes to his trade.  Cecil, his salesman, offers advice on how to win back Estelle and Benedict considers it.

One dark and stormy night, there is a knock at the front door.  Benedict imagines it is Estelle returned home.  But, no, instead there’s a teenage girl on the front porch and she is dripping wet.  She introduces herself – Gemma Stone, his estranged brother Charlie’s daughter.  Gemma has traveled alone from the United State and invites herself in for a stay.  She may or may not have her father’s permission to make the journey!

And that is the beginning of a wonderful tale of redemption and awakening for everyone.  Ms. Patrick infuses her chapters with fascinating information about the gemstones contained in a bag that Gemma has brought on her trip.  Each has historically associated attributes.  Together, Benedict and Gemma make these gemstones part of their strategy for creating a better life for both of them.

Ms. Patrick enlivens her characters with foibles and quirks.  Her scenes are full of color and details that will delight the reader.  It’s not often that an equally engaging novel follows a marvelous debut.  Happily, this author has succeeded with Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone.  Look for Benedict Stone in mid-May.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone will be released on May 16, 2017.

“Phaedra Patrick understands the soul.”  Nina George, New York Times bestselling author of The Little Paris Bookshop.

 

 

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