Tag Archives: January book releases

Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

the-futures

One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

i-liked-my-life-amazon

I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

i-liked-my-life-back

Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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A Table for Two

Restaurant Critic's Wife

The Restaurant Critic’s Wife: A Novel by Elizabeth LeBan (Lake Union, $24.95, 306 pages)

What we have here are the confessions of a restaurant critic’s wife done up as a rambling narrative. Lila falls in love with Sam Soto whose dream it is to be a newspaper food critic. I kid you not.

It all began back in New Orleans where Sam was a political reporter for the local newspaper. Lila is a high-powered hotel special events troubleshooter who loves her job. Sam captures her heart through her stomach. He cooks for Lila making yummy breakfasts and, well, you get the idea. Pretty soon they are a couple.

Sam catches his big break, but at the Philadelphia Herald. They move for Sam’s work. Lila enjoys socializing and being part of the community; however, Sam’s worldview is vastly different then hers. Alas, the life of a restaurant critic is filled with incognito dinners, no close friendships and keeping a low profile, which makes for quite a difficult lifestyle for Lila.

The frustrations and travails that follow are the heart of the story. Both Lila and Sam must face their issues and decide whether life is to be lived in secret or in the community. Only the real wife of a food critic could have written this novel. Clearly, Ms. LeBan has drawn from her own experiences to create such a believable tale. It’s impossible to determine where her life leaves off and her imagination begins to work.

Restaurant Critic's Wife back

Well recommended for foodies and folks on vacation.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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You’ll Lose A Good Thing

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Flesh and Blood Cornwell (Amazon)

Flesh and Blood: A Scarpetta Novel by Patricia Cornwell, Book #22 of the Series (William Morrow, $15.99, 369 pages)

Kay Scarpetta and her husband, Benton Wesley, are readying for a Florida vacation. She’s a medical examiner in Massachusetts and he’s an FBI profiler. Kay is called to a murder scene less than a mile from their 1800s home in Cambridge near the Harvard campus.

Kay and Benton manage to take their trip but the time they spend in Florida is anything but relaxing. Work interferes, as usual, and Detective Pete Marino of the Cambridge Police Department is drawn into the scary events that follow. There are terse conversations between Kay and Pete, which is par for this series ever since Pete quit his job at Kay’s crime lab. Loyalty seems to be the issue.

Long established grudges and proclivities on the part of all the main characters often get in the way of the crime solving. This book is consistent with the prior installments of the series. The story line has progressed over time; however, the mistrust and anger felt by the characters can be off-putting. When you add Carrie Grethen, the ultimate personification of twisted evil, pain and suffering are the outcome.

Author Cornwell’s stream of consciousness writing is sometimes difficult to follow. Her need to show off for readers with criminal and medical procedural details may be fascinating for first-time readers. After a few books it can be more than a bit boring.

Flesh and Blood back cover

Recommended strictly for highly loyal Patricia Cornwell fans and medical mystery enthusiasts.

Depraved Heart Cornwell

Depraved Heart: A Scarpetta Novel by Patricia Cornwell, Book #23 of the Series (William Morrow, $28.99, 466 pages)

A heavy-duty autobiography introducing Dr. Kay Scarpetta hits the reader in the opening pages of this book. The story line picks up two months after the conclusion of Flesh and Blood. Kay is back on the job in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The housekeeper has found the naked body of a Hollywood celebrity’s daughter on the marble floor of an impressive home not far from where Kay and Benton live. It could be an accidental fall from a ladder, but who changes light bulbs when they’re naked? Perhaps it’s a staged scene to cover up a murder. As usual there are plenty of gory details elaborately described by Kay as she sifts through possible clues in the house.

Thus begins another agonizing trek through Kay’s tortured relationships with Detective Pete Marino, niece Lucy and super villain, Carrie Grethen. Lucy, genius inventor and tech wizard, and her partner Janet have settled into an enormous estate with their adopted son. The place is loaded with enough electronic spy equipment to make a tech-loving reader drool.

Lucy, ever the rebel, is the target of FBI scrutiny and harassment. She is sure that Carrie is behind the full-on invasion of the estate that, surprise, occurs in tandem with the discovery of the naked young woman. A series of flashbacks experienced by Kay via videos sent to her cell phone connects the reader to the time when Lucy and Carrie were at the FBI Academy. It’s complicated and sometimes difficult to follow.

By now, you might have caught on that this reviewer won’t be jumping on the next installment in the series. Sometimes more is too much!

Patricia Cornwell

Recommended strictly for Patricia Cornwell fans and medical mystery enthusiasts.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

Flesh and Blood was released in a trade paperback version on January 5, 2016.

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The Quest

The Sirena Quest (nook book)

The Sirena Quest: A Mystery by Michael A. Kahn (Poisoned Pen Press, $14.95, 298 pages)

What is the likelihood of two widowed lawyers featured in a mystery – one a January 2015 release from Poisoned Pen Press and the other a December 2013 release from author Adam Mizner, A Case of Redemption? It’s probably not unheard of, but this reviewer read them both within a few weeks of each other purely by accident. That’s where the similarity ends.

Author Kahn provides a slow start to his latest book, a stand-alone. By the way, Sirena is a 300 pound bronze statue that has been the subject of many pranks since it was donated to an eastern college. Ultimately, it disappears. The main characters are four fellows, freshman roommates at the college in 1970. Sirena is still a legend many years after the abduction when they begin college life.

Fast forward to 1994 when a wealthy alumnus offers up a huge reward for the return of the statue, $25 million. The bulk of the reward is an endowment to the college; however two million is a reward for the finder(s). The four roommates decide to take the challenge. The pace picks up as clues are deciphered. The fellows only have a limited time before the deadline and they are hot on the trail.

Kahn shifts among the main characters giving the reader glimpses of the men 24 years ago during their freshman year at “Barrett College.” Barrett is a stand-in for Kahn’s alma mater, Amherst. The true value of this tale is the touching way the author portrays his characters. Their lives, like most of the rest of us, have their highs and lows. As the story concludes, the reader can feel emotions seep from the page into the real world.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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School Days

Where You Go (Nook Book)

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Process Mania by Frank Bruni (Grand Central Publishing, $25.00, 218 pages)

“For too many parents and their children, getting into a highly selective school isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or Dartmouth… or Northwestern is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point, an uncontestable harbinger of the successes or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling. What madness. And what nonsense.”

Frank Bruni has the good sense to argue that adult life may begin with one’s acceptance into a college, but it does not end there. Students are responsible for what they make out of their education, whether at an elite or less well known university. As he states, “Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.” He builds up his case by noting that several prominent and successful leaders in our society attended smaller, less “prestigious” colleges. Condoleeza Rice, for example, attended the University of Denver as an undergraduate. Steve Jobs, of course, dropped out of college, as did Bill Gates. Did Rice and Jobs and Gates turn out to be losers? Failures? Not exactly.

Bob Morse, who heads the college rankings program at U.S. News & World Report, did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati before getting his MBA from Michigan State. As Morse has concluded, “It’s not where you went to school. It’s how hard you work.”

Bruni emphasizes that some students will feel more comfortable at a small college offering a “more intimate academic environment,” even if schools like Kenyon, Denison, St. Lawrence or – a school I’m adding to his list – the University of the Pacific (UOP) are “less venerated than Princeton, Brown and Cornell.” For some, smaller colleges are “ideal environments: especially approachable, uniquely nurturing.” (UOP hangs banners reminding its students that it offers “Professors who know your name.”)

Pacific_Sign

In this calm, forthright book, Bruni tries to reduce the “madness” of the college admission process, noting that there are several inherent flaws and biases that applicants have little or no control over. For example, a particular college may need a couple of trombone players for the band. If you are the first or second trombone-playing applicant, you may get a large packet offering you admission and a scholarship. If you’re the third trombonist applicant, you’ll likely receive a thin envelope containing a rejection notice. If life, as John F. Kennedy stated, is not fair, than neither is the process of determining who gets into our colleges and universities.

Students who suffer the consequences of unfair admissions policies will learn that it will not be their last experience with life’s unfairness. What counts is their positive response to adversity and their perseverance in making the best of whatever circumstance they have to settle for.

Bruni’s book would be an excellent purchase for high school students who feel threatened by the highly competitive process of seeking admission to a so-called “elite” university. Reading his book may help such students to calm down, and feel encouraged to investigate various colleges, not just the “status” schools that their classmates may lust after. (Any school can offer a fine, valuable education to students ready to demand a lot from themselves and their environment.) This book is also a near indispensable guide for the parents of current high school students.

Where You Go… reminds the reader, young or old, high school student or adult parent, that “there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything (in life) hinges.” Some, in fact, will find that a valuable lesson can be learned via being rejected by one’s top choice universities. One young woman, a graduate of the famed and “charmed” Phillips Exeter Academy, was rejected by all five of the colleges she applied to. She states that, “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.” That young woman started up a new federally-supported public elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. A loser? Hardly.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as editor on this piece.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-where-you-go-is-not-wholl-youll-be-an-antidote-to-the-college-admissions-mania-by-frank-bruni/

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Saved by Zero

Finding Zero

Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir D. Aczel (Palgrave, $26.00, 256 pages)

Each of us has a personal passion, maybe one that lingers from childhood, or is triggered by a chance encounter. For Amir Aczel, son of a passenger ship captain, numbers are at the center of his life’s work. As a child he traveled with his family during school breaks on his father’s ships. Navigation and the way ships follow a course fascinated him. Thus began a lifelong fascination with numbers and their origins.

A prolific author of twenty books – including Fermat’s Last Theorem, Aczel is also part-time lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a research fellow at the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science. Finding Zero is his own story – an autobiography of sorts. Aczel does not romanticize his quest for the origin of the zero; rather, his is a straightforward telling. Although he narrates the story of his life, it is by no means dry or self-centered.

Aczel’s unusual upbringing included exposure to historic places and above all, the joy of travel. The adults in his life encouraged his curiosity. Aczel became a person whose goal is to see for himself – IRL, in real life. Finding Zero is the journal of his years-long journey through the most ancient parts of human civilization where numbers were first used. The goal was simple, find the first use of the zero. But that’s not as simple as it seems.

Finding Zero rear cover

The reader will appreciate Aczel’s direct and easy-to-read style of writing. A highly-educated man who teaches and researches in well-regarded academic institutions, Aczel does not aggrandize his work, or engage in puffery. He provides a unique perspective on numbers and illustrates how fundamentally math is a basic part of human lives, both in the past and in the present.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Finding Zero alternate

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on January 6, 2015.

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