Tag Archives: Harper Paperbacks

Love Is All There Is

Yesterday's Sun (nook book)

Yesterday’s Sun: A Novel by Amanda Brooke (Harper, $14.99, 326 pages)

How can she choose between her child and herself?

If you’ve enjoyed reading Audrey Niffenegger’s unique novels (Her Fearful Symmetry, The Time Traveler’s Wife), you will likely find this debut novel by Amanda Brooke to be extremely engaging. Yes, there’s the calm countryside near London, time travel and spirits of a sort as provided by a magical device – an ancient Aztec moondial that, on full moon nights, enables its owner to travel 18 months into the future, for an hour at a time. Our female protagonist, Holly, fears she’d be a terrible mother – like her own parent, until she uses the moondial found in her new home’s garden to discover that she will give birth to a daughter, Libby. The problem is that Holly will die while giving birth, which means that she’s faced with the choice of never getting pregnant or sacrificing her life for that of a child she will never know.

Brooke does so much with this fascinating plotline and, like Niffenegger, drags us slowly into an alternate world presenting strange and dreadful choices…

Holly felt defeated and deflated. There were three whole weeks to wait until the next full moon… and Holly felt like her life had been placed in limbo. Dealing with the emotional fallout from this latest separation from (her husband) was bad enough, but living with the nagging doubts and the growing possibility that she had seen a vision of her future – one where she had already died – was just too much to bear.

Holly, fortunately, comes to know the elderly neighbor, Jocelyn, who once lived in her old rural home and knows the powers of the moondial, and the rules (“A life for a life.”) that apply to its use.

Her hands trembled as she held aloft her death certificate. The certificate recorded the cause of her death as an aneurism… following childbirth complications. Holly took a deep breath and focused on the sensation of her blood flowing through her veins and her heart beating rapidly in her chest. She was most definitely alive.

Holly barely survives the days between full moons, when she jumps into the future for 60 minutes and sees the results of her current life choices. She comes to find that some things about the future can be changed, and some cannot. And she’s faced with the ultimate choice: continuing her own life (seeing in her time travels that her husband Tom will be destroyed at her untimely death) or giving it up for the child she’s seen and come to love more than anything.

(Holly) looked up at the moon and realized that she didn’t have to wish for anything else. She had her husband and she had Libby growing inside of her and she would have both of them with her until the day she died.

Brooke supplies an almost perfect ending that will fool readers, like me, who suspect a different conclusion has been brewing. This novel, which evolved from the author’s loss of her three-year-old son, Nathan, from cancer, is both inspired and inspiring. It’s a fine tribute to Nathan Valentine and the power of eternal love.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Magical and unputdownable.” Katie Fforde

Yesterday’s Sun was released on February 12, 2013.

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Yesterday's Sun (alt. 300)

A review of Yesterday’s Sun: A Novel by Amanda Brooke.

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You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

Blood Line: An Anna Travis Novel by Lynda La Plante (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99, 480 pages)

She gave him a smile and then returned to weaving in and out of the traffic, constantly using the car horn and swearing as they hit a snarl up by Ladbroke Grove.   Paul felt very uneasy and not just because of her erratic driving, although it did make him cringe back in his seat a few times, but rather because of her attitude.   Anna seemed pleased about Alan Rawlings possibly being a victim.

Betrayal is the mother of invention in this rambling tale of a missing person and possible murder victim.   Author Lynda La Plante is a celebrated and highly successful mystery writer.   Her most famous work is the British television series, Prime Suspect.   In Blood Line, La Plante takes every opportunity to delve into the psychology of each of her main characters.   She literally weaves the story among the characters and around the landscape where the action takes place.

The story line provides some rather blunt evidence of man’s inhumanity to man and to helpless creatures as well.   A reader would have to be numb not to feel an emotional connection to some of the victims – the subject of the prologue and a herd of retired circus seals.   When it comes to knowing more about the prologue victim, a handsome young man whose body is missing, the emotions felt for him may change for the reader.

Anna Travis is a newly-badged detective chief inspector who is recovering from the loss of her fiance.   To complicate matters, Anna’s supervisor is her former lover.   To say that she has raw spots in her heart is an understatement.   What begins as a missing persons report filed by an anxious father, morphs into an all-out race against evil to bring the disparate elements of the case together for a satisfying conclusion.

As a fan of the Prime Suspect series, this reviewer turned the first page of Blood Line with a definite bias toward trusting the author to provide an enjoyable read.   That trust was validated.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Blood Line was released on October 23, 2012.   “Fun, fearsome, and fiercely independent.”   Sunday Telegraph (London)

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The Real Romney

The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman (Harper Paperbacks, $15.99, 448 pages)

“Looks like I’ve turned out like all the rest, but Mama my intentions were the best.”   Randy Travis (“Good Intentions”)

“A lot of it is, he is patrician.   He just is.   He has lived a charmed life…  It is a big challenge that he has connecting to folks who haven’t swum in the same rarefied waters that he has.”   A former aide, quoted in The Real Romney.

I’ve now read two accounts of the personal and political life of Mitt Romney (the other being Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics by R. B. Scott) – adding up to some 693 pages – and yet I feel like the singer in Randy Travis’s song, “Good Intentions.”   No matter now good my intentions are, I’ve not had any luck in finding out exactly who Mitt Romney is, in head or in heart.   I’m beginning to wonder if his biographers wind up with the same frustrated feeling.

What were his issues?   What did he believe?   Sure, he was against Kennedy, but what was he for?   In other words, who was Mitt Romney?

The team of Kranish and Helman, seasoned reporters for The Boston Globe, covered Romney as the governor of Massachusetts for four years; therefore, they have some background on the subject.   And the 400-plus page account that they’ve fashioned seems impressive – with annotations and a fine index – until it dawns on the reader that the subject of the book remains more of a specter than a human being.   Specter: something that haunts or perturbs the mind (Merriam-Webster).

“Everything could always be tweaked, reshaped, fixed, addressed,” said one former 2008 aide, describing Romney’s outlook.   “It was foreign to him on policy issues that core principles mattered.”

What Kranish-Helman do well, fanatically well, is to provide a “fair and balanced” approach.   There’s almost a mathematical precision to their balancing of “good” Mitt versus “bad” Mitt stories.   Let them provide a couple of examples in which Romney did admirable work based on his Mormonism, and they’re quickly followed by two stories of when he allegedly acted uncharitably – and perhaps heartlessly – toward two Mormon women facing personal struggles.   And when it comes to his work with Bain Capital, the stories of Romney’s “good” venture capitalism are quickly cancelled out by an equal number of tales of his practice of “bad” vulture capitalism.

“The goal of the investor in Bain Capital is to make absolute returns.   When they do well, Bain does well.   When Bain does well, they do well.   It is essentially capitalism at its finest – and its worst.”   Howard Anderson, MIT professor and former Bain investor.

It all seems to verify the accounts that Romney is only “the real Romney” when he’s practicing his Mormon faith.   However, since that’s not something he’s comfortable either talking about or dealing with in public, it means that the person he is – or may be – remains hidden.   In reading The Real Romney, an image comes to mind of the presidential candidate dressed in a Zorro-style costume – a man who wears a mask that’s never removed, and which never slides down for even an instant.

“After all the weeks and months of that campaign, if you ask, ‘Why did Mitt Romney run for (the) U. S. Senate, and what did he stand for?’ most people had no clue.”   Mitt Romney, speaking about himself, as quoted by a fellow party member.

There are entertaining sections in this nonfiction read, most notably those involving Romney’s seemingly foolish run against Ted Kennedy for the U. S. Senate (a race that Romney thought he had a chance of winning until the pre- and post-debate polls came out) and the details of his single term as governor.   The reporters also do an admirable job of explaining how Mitt’s life is almost an exact re-run of his father George’s life – both were elected as governor of a state at the age of 55, both were successful businessmen, and both ran for president.   In this respect, Mitt Romney sounds very much like Al Gore, who was raised to accomplish the things that his senator father had not been able to.   Yet, it’s never clear in this account if Mitt Romney has the fire in his belly that will make him settle for nothing less than the presidency.

“When he’s with people he doesn’t know, he gets more formal.  And if it’s a political thing where he doesn’t know anybody, he has a mask.”

“He has that invisible wall between ‘me’ and ‘you’.”

Unless you’re the ultimate political junkie, there’s just not enough here to justify reading 450 or so pages to find out that the mask, the invisible wall, never comes down.   The question simply changes from, “Who was Mitt Romney?” (past tense) to “Who is Mitt Romney?”   Based on The Real Romney (and on the book by R. B. Scott, a cousin of Romney’s), it remains a fully unanswered question.

Joseph Arellano

 A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Real Romney was released in a trade paper version, with a new Afterward, on August 21, 2012.   “…absorbing and fair minded.”   The New York Times

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Do Not Enter

Based Upon Availability: A Novel by Alix Strauss (Harper Paperbacks, 340 pages, $13.99)

“Living with a ghost is easier than living alone.”

If the idea of reading about the fictional lives of eight highly dysfunctional and miserable women makes you giddy with excitement, you might like Based Upon Availability.   This novel by Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals, Death Becomes Them) allows one to wallow in misery.   The chief protagonist Morgan, the manager at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, would seem to have it made.   But she’s never gotten over the loss of her younger sister, so she does some very strange things – like having sex with the lowest paid males who work for her and entering the rooms of guests while they’re away.

Oh, yes, we meet the other women – all of whom have big troubles – when Morgan goes inside their room.   That’s the signal that another sad story is about to play out.   It is actually quite a shame because Strauss can write well, “Bernie sounds like a beagle that never comes when you call…  (a man) wearing a golf hat who plays cards with his cronies in Florida.”   But the sex scenes are beyond redemption.   Morgan whispers to her latest conquest so that she can pretend “like (she’s) in a porn video.”

All in all, this is a sad collection of stories which portray life as nothing more than simple torture.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Bird in Hand

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks, $13.99, 320 pages)

Yeah we were desperate then/ To have each other to hold/ But love is a long, long road.   Tom Petty

bird-in-hand

Full and proper character development appears to be becoming a lost art in fiction, but author Christina Baker Kline does her bit to revive the art in the intriguing novel Bird in Hand.   This is a fine story, extremely well told, of four people, partners in two marriages and very good friends.   We get to know all four characters and hear their stories – from their own perspectives – in this well-constructed tale.

The narrative begins with Alison whose life seems to be virtually perfect until two things happen.   First, she becomes involved in a deadly accident while under the influence and the ramifications of this threaten to tear her world apart.   Second is something that she’s completely unaware of, which is that her husband is having an affair with someone she considered a friend.   Thus, her world changes overnight:  “For Alison, now, the world was a different place, and yet it was strangely the same.   She was present and not present in her own life.”

Kline writes with the same cool, suburban angst filled tone as Richard Ford (Independence Day, The Sportswriter).   There’s a question that is asked in Ford’s writing and in a Talking Heads song:  How did I get here?   “She walked around the silent house and looked at the framed photographs that lined the mantelpiece and cluttered the bookshelves, wondering, Is this really my life?   This collage of frozen moments, frozen in time.”

In Bird in Hand, we also meet Charlie, Alison’s steady if unfaithful husband; Claire, the newly published author and friend of Alison’s; and Ben, Charlie’s successful if somewhat dull and introverted husband.   It’s rare to find a work in which all four characters are so well fleshed out and, yes, real.   Here’s an example in how Alison describes Charlie:  “…as they started talking she realized that there was…  something in his character that she couldn’t  put down.   He wasn’t cocky, and his humor was gentle.   He had a mild confidence, a lack of self-consciousness, an ironic take on the world that wasn’t caustic or bitter.   Despite his social ease, he had a solitary air.”

At one point, Charlie describes Claire in words that could apply to the author’s style in writing this novel.   “She could be formal one moment and irreverent, even crude, the next.”

“Real life, she knew, was just beginning.”

One of the ironies of reading Bird in Hand is that its fictional account of the disintegration of a marriage feels far more true to life than two contemporary nonfiction accounts:  How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed by Theo Pauline Nestor and Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies.   I much preferred Nestor’s account but neither narrator seemed as true to me as the character Alison in Kline’s work.

It may be because Kline gives us not just a story, but the motivations that spur on the individuals.   With Alison, it’s disillusionment.   “Nothing about her life at the moment was what she’d envisioned for herself when she got married.”   Alison’s husband Charlie is moved by the feeling that he’s made the wrong choices for himself.   “He was doing this because he could not keep skimming along the surface of his life without one day crashing into something hard and unpleasant…  he was convinced he would get only one chance to feel this kind of passion, to express it, to live.”

And then Kline reveals that motivation, intent, means little or nothing because all humans act with incomplete – flawed – knowledge (quoting Alice McDermott):  “As if…  what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.”   So, ultimately, this is an impressive work about real, flawed, individuals doing the best they can at a certain point in their existence, making mistakes but ultimately moving forward.   “It was real life, the way things should be, and even as it was happening it felt to Alison like a distant memory, the moment already slipping into the past.”

bird-in-hand-back-cover

A great deal of praise should be bestowed on author Kline for creating characters that adult readers can relate to.   At one point in Bird in Hand, Kline writes of Alison’s experiences as a young woman, “It was a strange and magical feeling.”   Kline has delivered a strange, unique, magical and borderline brilliant story.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review (hardbound) copy was provided by William Morrow.  

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Everybody Is A Star

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond

“The thing about Hollywood is, it’s no different from heroin or gambling or crack cocaine, except in Hollywood the high is adrenaline.   …And, at any given moment there are ten thousand stunned and hopeful actors driving around the LA freeways, and every one of them is believing that the big break is coming just as surely as sunrise.”

Anne Lamott’s recently released novel Imperfect Birds is a nearly perfectly written story of a loving family in crisis.   In Birds, the love emotes with tension as three family members try to minimize the mistakes they inevitably make in their relationship.   Birds is both tiring – in the sense that it requires the reader’s full attention – and uplifting.

Now Diane Hammond arrives with another lovingly told family novel, Seeing Stars.   Stars is the tale of several families of acting children and their stage mothers who are seeking the fame and fortune that only Hollywood can provide.   Is the pot of gold they’re seeking real or just an illusion?   In part, it’s both.

This is primarily the story of one Ruth Rabinowitz who is almost completely sure that her daughter Bethany is destined to be one of the stars in the Hollywood night.   But Hollywood pushes back by telling Ruth that her daughter is, at best, a character actor.   Then there’s Ruth’s husband, Hugh, left behind in Seattle with his 20-year-old dental practice.  

Hugh supports his wife and daughter but honestly feels they are chasing a dream that will never come true – and the cost of maintaining an extra household in L.A. (not to mention the cost of acting lessons) is eating up all of his earnings.   Does Hugh make Ruth and Bethany return home or let them experience failure?   Will his wife and daughter prove him to be wrong?

The Rabinowitz’s story is the main one but there are several associated ones in Stars.   There’s Bethany’s sometime friend Allison Addison.   Allison is beautiful and knows it.   She also knows that her time to secure a big-time leading role is quickly running out.   Her aggressiveness hides her loneliness.

Allison is quasi-adopted by the shrewd and tough talent agent Mimi Rogers.   Mimi is tougher (“…like an old cat in the night”) than 90% of those in the business but even she must eventually meet her match.

There’s Quinn Reilly, another find of Mimi’s, who is a young James Dean.   Like Dean, he simmers with obvious talent but isn’t much with the social skills.   Will directors use him or figure it’s not worth the cost and aggravation?

Finally there’s Laurel Buehl who is talented enough to make commercials but may be lacking the personality to take the next step.   Her mother Angie has had to battle and survive cancer to be at her side.

Hammond puts all this together with charm and style.   This is an easy – and thus surprisingly fast – read because she so well cushions tension with humor.   In a sense, Hammond’s writing is like Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen with blinders on.   That’s OK, sometimes we need a bit of a break from the harsh light of reality.

It all ends stunningly and smoothly – and must be experienced by the reader rather than explained here or elsewhere.   At the end of Seeing Stars, all of our protagonists both win and lose.   They all – each and every one of them – learn to take what they need out of life and to leave the rest.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by Harper Paperbacks.

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