Tag Archives: Kimberly Caldwell

On the Way Home

Pictures of You (original)

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.95, 336 pages)

Caroline Leavitt has built a reputation for insightful probing of motives, desires, and the emotional gears that mesh, don’t mesh, or can be worn to mesh as lives intersect. Pictures of You demonstrates that human gears, unlike their mechanical counterparts, have the ability to regrow and change shape, like calluses that evolve in response to physical exertion.

The synopsis on the book’s back cover does not do the book justice. It sets up the bleak scenario of two thirty-something women, both married, one with a child and the other unable to conceive, whose paths cross in a violent collision on a foggy highway as they both flee unhappy marriages. Isabelle survives the crash. April, the mother of nine-year-old Sam, who was hobbled by severe asthma, does not. Potential readers with an aversion to made-for-TV melodrama might hesitate to wade into an emotional journey so fraught with tragedy. But that would be a mistake.

The story, alternatively told from the viewpoints of Isabelle, Sam, and his grief-stricken father, Charlie, is an examination of assumptions and the actions that spring from them. It’s not a book that leaves one with a happy glow of contentment. Rather, it is a wake-up call to talk, ask questions, challenge operating principles and decisions, to dive below the surface and know the people you love, or think you might be able to love.

Sam witnesses the collision from the side of the road, and in the fog, he sees Isabelle, whom he believes is an angel. It is that childish impression — like a photograph without a caption — that drives the plot forward, prompting the intersections of Charlie and Isabelle’s lives. And Sam ultimately provides the closure that eludes Charlie and Isabelle, as well as a note of hopefulness. Ironically, however, Sam’s viewpoint is the only one of the three that sometimes rings false, his thoughts seeming too adult for a nine-year-old, or too precious.

He didn’t care that people might say it was impossible. Lots of things were impossible. At school, Mr. Moto, his science teacher told them how light could be both a wave and a particle, which was supposed to be impossible. You could go to a distant planet and somehow come back younger than you were when you left because the laws of time were all screwy.

But the way Isabelle’s feelings develop — the clash of grief and the thrill of new love — and Charlie’s struggles to solve the mystery of April’s desertion and to balance his needs and his son’s are beautifully drawn. Leavitt’s prose is luminous and her characters are layered. Charlie, a house builder, takes bold steps, and then reverses himself; Isabelle, a photographer, watches, reacts, questions her own impulses. Pictures of You is compelling, not so much because of the tragic intersection of paths chosen, but because of the characters’ failure to know each other as they envision their lives together. It’s not the portrait of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam that will haunt you long after you finish the book, but it’s negative.

Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Twist and Shout

The Expats

The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone (Broadway, $15.00, 352 pages)

The Expats by editor-turned-novelist Chris Pavone has all the twists and turns of a Robert Ludlum or Clive Cussler action-thriller, plus a domestic element that sets it apart from the pack: it plays the layers of duplicity in Kate and Dexter Moore’s professional lives against the secrets they guard from each other in their marriage.

Kate is a spy and a young mom – a smart, self-consciously attractive, nominally maternal, thirty-something who leaves a CIA career to stay home with the kids when Dexter lands a lucrative banking security job in Luxembourg. But nothing and no one in The Expats is as advertised. Kate’s nagging questions about her husband’s fundamental character spur her to investigate when she senses threatening intentions in a friendly American couple they meet in the ex-pat community in Luxembourg.

Don’t read it for shimmering imagery or deeply conflicted characters. It isn’t that kind of book. Kate is Jason Bourne in a skirt. She can remove herself from the Company, but she can’t squash the instincts that made her a hired gun. The Expats is a set of spiraling secrets, the exposition of which is played out in lushly detailed European cities.

In a Publishers Weekly interview in 2012, Chris Pavone said, “A detailed map of the story line was what made it possible to write such a labyrinthe book…” – in addition to a numbered list of twists and turns. Action thriller fans will love this one. Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Expats was released in a trade paper version on January 22, 2013. “Brilliant, insanely clever, and delectably readable.” Library Journal

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My Old School

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books, $24.95, 288 pages)

The Lola Quartet, the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel (The Singer’s Gun and Last Night in Montreal) reads like an unsettling dream, sliding between present and past in the lives of a group of high school acquaintances.   The title refers to the jazz quartet in which four of the characters played in high school — they’d named it after a German film they liked.   Playing jazz from the back of a pickup truck one night at the end of senior year is a scene revisited with longing throughout the novel, as it represents the end of their innocence or the beginning of their futures, when all things seemed possible.

The classmates scatter the moment they graduate but remain connected by bad choices, honorable impulses, and blood.   To say they are friends would stretch the definition of the word, but perhaps that is appropriate in the era of Facebook, an age that the author paints in shades of alienation.

Although several characters tell their versions of their roles in the incidents that connect them, the primary narrator is Gavin Sasaki, who achieves the most career success in the decade after high school – before he almost inexplicably sabotages himself.   He’s a reporter who lies, a discordance that underscores the sense of unease and hopelessness that pervades the novel.   On one level, The Lola Quartet presents a mystery as Gavin searches for a child he thinks may be his.   On another level, it seems like a photo printed in a darkroom: the image that slowly forms on the page is that of a generation hungry for connection and mired in hopelessness.  It’s a page-turner and a thought-provoker.

Highly recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Lola Quartet was released on May 1, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

This is a review of The Singer’s Gun: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/two-steps/

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Brand New Day

Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kayne Kaufman (Grant Place Press, $24.95, 336 pages)

“I was lost, double crossed with my hands behind my back…”   Van Morrison (“Brand New Day” – Moondance album)

Yale grad Gloria Zimmerman is so germ-phobic that she endures an overnight flight from Chicago to London and then an excruciating car ride to Oxford University without peeing.   When she and her nearly bursting bladder finally reach her flat – and the private bathroom that she will sanitize and make her own – she discovers to her horror that she must share it with a neighbor.   Not only that, but he is messy and dirty – and he is occupying the toilet when she arrives.

Gloria is a Rhodes Scholar who is studying feminist poetry.   Her untreated Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has always prevented her from forming close friendships.   But even though flatmate Henry Young, a music student and son of a priggish and disapproving Oxford don, is an “unrefined, germ-infested oaf,” he intrigues her.   Or, more to the point, his taste in music does.   They share a love of the music – and the poetry – of the iconic rocker Van Morrison.

That small spit of common ground is enough for love to wedge its foot between the door and the jamb.   Henry embraces Van Morrison’s “fatalistic optimism” and dedicates himself to releasing Gloria from the prison of her cleaning compulsions.   But is it enough to keep the door open when the true extent of Henry’s vile germs becomes apparent?

Author Andrea Kayne Kaufman is a lawyer and a professor of educational leadership at DePaul University in Chicago, where she serves as chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum.   In an interview on her website, she speaks of her belief that people can overcome “irrevocable” damage with hard work and hope.   Her characters Henry and Gloria both view themselves as unlovable.   But as Van Morrison wrote, “It’s a marvelous night for a moondance…” and attraction compels them to muster the strength to try to help each other

Experts on OCD have raved about Kaufman’s sensitive and accurate portrayal of the condition as viewed from the inside.   But readers of all stripes will appreciate Oxford Messed Up for its unique take on what it means to love another human being, warts and all, and for its profound message of hopefulness.   Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Oxford Messed Up is also available in a trade paper version for $14.95, and as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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In the Midst of This

The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone (Crown, $26.00, 336 pages)

The Expats by editor-turned-novelist Chris Pavone has all the twists and turns of a Robert Ludlum or Clive Cussler action-thriller, plus a domestic element that sets it apart from the pack: it plays the layers of duplicity in Kate and Dexter Moore’s professional lives against the secrets they guard from each other in their marriage.

Kate is a spy and a young mom – a smart, self-consciously attractive, nominally maternal, thirty-something who trades a CIA career to stay home with the kids when Dexter lands a lucrative banking security job in Luxembourg.   But nothing and no one in The Expats is as advertised.   Kate’s nagging questions about her husband’s fundamental character spur her to investigate when she senses threatening intentions in a friendly American couple they meet in the ex-pat community in Luxembourg.

Don’t read it for shimmering imagery or deeply conflicted characters.   It isn’t that kind of book.   Kate is Jason Bourne in a skirt.   She can remove herself from the Company, but she can’t squash the instincts that made her a hired gun.   The Expats is a set of spiraling secrets, the exposition of which is played out in lushly detailed European cities.

In a Publishers Weekly interview in January, Chris Pavone said, “A detailed map of the story line was what made it possible to write such a labyrinthine book…” – in addition to a numbered list of the twists and turns.   Action thriller fans will love this one.   Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Expats was released on March 6, 2012.   “Brilliant, insanely clever, and delectably readable.”   Library Journal

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Wild Thing

Wild Thing: A Novel by Josh Bazell (Reagan, Arthur Books, $25.99, 400 pages)

Eagerly awaited by fans of Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell’s caustic, damaged, mob hit man-turned-doctor is back – still running from the mob and marked for death.   This time, hiding out as Lionel Azimuth, a physician on a cruise ship, he’s tapped by a reclusive billionaire for a mercenary mission in the wilds of Minnesota.

Wild Thing is funny – loaded with footnotes in which the scientist in Dr. Azimuth documents his sources and explains his assumptions.   It’s also profane and raw, and the sexual tension between Azimuth and Violet, the beautiful paleontologist he accompanies on the junket to validate or debunk stories of a man-eating Loch Ness-type beast, is only partially due to his overly obvious attraction to her and to air so thick with pheromones that it crunches.   The flame is also fanned by their easy banter, which swings from Greek history to Scooby-Doo.

“How many people have you killed?” she asks, after he finally decides to trust her enough to reveal his past.

“I don’t know.   Around twenty.”

“You don’t know?” she asks.

“There were some situations where some of them might have lived.”

Azimuth is a hulking man whose physical size adds a layer of monstrousness that belies the funny, intelligent, sensitive man that he is at heart.   But Wild Thing has a tough act to follow.   Beat the Reaper, Bazell’s bestselling first novel, put the same protagonist (aka Pietro Brwna/Peter Brown) in the struggle that defines him: the quest to come to grips with the violent events that orphaned him both physically and emotionally.   Although the tension between good and evil is still present, the demons Azimuth faces in the sequel are cartoonish and played for laughs.

Post-traumatic stress disorder nightmares?   LSD-enhanced monsters?   Sarah Palin in a speaking role?   Bring on, as Azimuth would say.   But the despair that made him so compelling in Beat the Reaper – a brooding, misunderstood, pragmatically lethal Shrek who kills to stay alive – is missing in Wild Thing.

Wild Thing, an entertaining romp through contemporary U.S. politics and evolutionary zoology, is well recommended.   But if you haven’t read either of Bazell’s books yet, save Beat the Reaper for last.   That’s the one that will leave you wanting more.

Kimberly Caldwell

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Wild Thing was released on February 8, 2012.

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All These Things That I’ve Done

All These Things I’ve Done (Birthright) by Gabrielle Zevin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $16.99; 368 pages)

While everyone’s lost, the battle is won/ With all these things that I’ve done (Time, truth and hearts)/ If you can hold on/ If you can hold on.   “All These Things That I’ve Done,” The Killers

Chocolate is contraband… caffeine is illegal…

In All These Things I’ve Done, Gabrielle Zevin creates a New York City some seventy years into the future, when dealing in and possession of chocolate is a crime.   Yes, it’s another dystopian young adult  novel, and faint whiffs of urban decay lend it an appropriate bleakness.   But several elements set it apart from the pack and make it an unusually entertaining read.

Firstly, although the government and police are the obvious heavies, the protagonist, Anya Balanchine, is not entirely a victim.   Rather, she is the scion of an illustrious crime boss, and when her louse of a boyfriend is poisoned by tainted chocolate, suspicion turns to her.

Secondly, the adult characters are almost as prominent as teen characters.   Particularly well drawn are Galina, Anya’s wise and street-savvy grandmother, and Charles Delacroix, the assistant district attorney, whose own agenda threatens to squash Anya’s chance at happiness.

Finally, there is Anya, herself.   At 16, she’s whip smart and calculating.   As the de facto “guardian” for her younger sister and older but impaired brother, she has to weigh her every move against the legal implications as well as the potential retaliations by her own extended crime family and other chocolate syndicates.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux released All These Things I’ve Done on September 6th.   And readers who find Anya Balanchine intriguing will have cause for celebration:  This is the first book in a series.   Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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