Tag Archives: life

Strangers on a Train

One Moment, One Morning: A Novel by Sarah Rayner (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99, 407 pages)

Sometimes, one moment is all it takes to change a life forever.

“A sudden death like that cuts right across the priorities and sensitivities of the living: one minute Karen was drinking coffee and engrossed in conversation with her husband; the next she was witnessing his last moments.”

Sarah Rayner has written a tremendously engaging novel about three women who are drawn together by an unforeseen tragedy.   The women are on the 7:44 a.m. commuter train into London when the husband of one of them suddenly collapses and dies of a heart attack.   Death happens every day, but this one brings the three together – joined by one sad moment, one morning.

“…as she opens her eyes wide to put on mascara, she is overwhelmed by an urge to cry.   It takes her aback; until now she has been fine,or fineish, operating on automatic pilot.”

If an expected death has the capacity to leave us stunned, then how much more so is it true of an unexpected one?   This is the territory that Rayner explores in her character study of three different personalities.   One woman’s been a contented wife and mother, another’s a counselor of troubled young people who’s busy hiding her personal identity, and the third’s a seemingly sharp women who wonders what people would think if they knew what her boyfriend “is capable of when he’s drunk.”   She supposes, “They’d be horrified, surely.”

Rayner’s story flows so smoothly that it’s easy to forget that this is a novel; it flows the way the best-edited films do on-screen.   She not only writes about common people in a natural way, she also presents the sort of revelations that happen to drop into our consciousness now and then:  “Some people who seem warm and friendly on first impression, turn out to be disappointedly superficial, whereas the aloof ones…  emerge as affectionate and loyal.”

This novel covers the lives of three women during one week, a week that will change everything for them in ways both small and large.   One Moment, One Morning is a book to take along with you on a vacation trip, when you can savor its warm, forgiving sense of humanness without being rushed.   It reminds us of something essential – that out of death comes a reaffirmation of life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

“Oh, what a novel!   It will make you laugh and cry, it will make you want to call your dear ones to tell them how much you love them, it will make you buy it for all your friends…  Anna, Lou and Karen will feel like they are your soul sisters.”   Tatianna de Rosnay, author of A Secret Kept and Sarah’s Key

“You’ll want to inhale it in one breath.”   Easy Living

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7 Questions

We are here continuing our interview with writer Maddie Dawson, author of The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel.   In this concluding part of the interview, the questions were asked by Joseph Arellano (JA) and Kimberly Caldwell (KC).

4.  JA:   When I was writing music reviews in college, I loved to read interviews in which musicians cited their influences, idols and role models.   (I would then go and listen to those other musicians to see if I could hear the connections.)   With this in mind, which authors come to mind when you think about who has influenced you?

MD:   I love writers who really explore the complexities of relationships and the inner lives of their characters – writers like Alice Munro, Amy Bloom, and Anne Tyler.   (Hmmm, a lot of A’s there.)   I also love so much of Jane Smiley’s work, particularly her early novels – and I love Anne Proulx’s short stories and her descriptions.   I believe that life is a  mix of humor and pathos, that the hilarious gets mixed in with the mundane and the tragic on a daily basis, so I adore the work (particularly the non-fiction) of Anne Lamott who is just so honest and real.   I love the wordplay and intelligence of Lorrie Moore’s work, and I’m constantly awed by the humorous work of modern male writers like Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Tropper.

5.  JA:   Is there a particular novel that you’ve read in 2010/2011 that seemed to be exemplary or mind-blowing?

MD:   I’m so glad you asked this question, because I was completely blown away by A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.   The complexities of that novel, the ins and outs of the plot, the depth of the characters:  I found it truly mind-blowing.

6.  JA:   What’s either the best or the hardest thing about publicizing your own work?

MD:   Ack!   Getting the word out about a book is such a huge task for authors these days.   I love some aspects of it – the social media stuff, the connecting with readers, the skype-ing with book groups and the constant feedback from people who have comments.   But other aspects are harder for me:  keeping up a blog and being interesting when really my head and heart are with my new characters and my new book, which is just coming into being.

7.  KC:   Are you working on a new book and, if so, what is the premise?

MD:   I am working on a new book.   It’s the story of a woman who, at 43, discovers she’s pregnant for the first time, just as she and her long-term boyfriend agree to a separation so she can care for her 88-year-old grandmother who is suddenly having little strokes.   It’s a story about the risks we take in loving, and the way that you can’t ever truly predict what your life will be.   I think all my work is basically about finding our true lives and our real families, and the ways in which we can be surprised by the life that finds us when we’ve gone ahead and made other plans, to paraphrase John Lennon.

Note:  Part One of this interview (The Author’s Perspective; click on the link in the Recent Entries column on the right to read it) was posted on this site on August 30, 2011.   Maddie Dawson’s novel, The Stuff That Never Happened, is now available as a trade paperback release.

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19th Nervous Breakdown

Perspectives on the Publishing Trade

A Disturbing Trend

Increasingly, I’ve been bothered by a new trend in fiction that’s not at all positive.   This is the creation of the novel that has no plot, no true story line.   Such books – which are often actually novellas – revolve around a few days, weeks, months or years of a character’s life.   The reader-purchaser is often fooled by front jacket blurbs that promise exciting plot twists, and sometimes mention “crimes,” and indicate that one absolutely must read through to “the last page.”   Ah, yes, but when the reader has completed all of the 240 or so pages, he/she may find that nothing happened in the space between first page and the last.   No crimes have been committed, no major characters killed, no cities threatened, no buildings or homes firebombed, no fictional characters have had their lives transformed.

Why is this happening?   I have no idea, but it’s made worse by reviews that actually praise the author for being “clever”!   This type of review will read something like this, “Author Betty Robinson really had me fooled this time, thinking that her character was going to commit a heinous crime; the story’s conclusion was a clever one.”   Except that the clever conclusion involved an absence of events.

I, for one, would like to see some truth in advertising.   Firstly, books that are novellas should be clearly labeled as such, not subtitled “A Novel.”   (Recently, even a couple of short story collections have carried the designation of novel.)   Secondly, I’d like to see a Reader Advisory sticker that reads:  Warning – Nothing actually happens between the covers of this novel/novella.   It’s a book about nothing.   Purchase it at your own risk; there will be no refunds.   Thirdly, how about requiring the purchaser to sign a waiver of his/her expectations?   (“I understand that I’m not going to be satisfied by reading this story.”)

Maybe this doesn’t sound like much, but it might be a start in making things better.

Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the tale told in the book ring true?   Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or too strange?   If the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible, then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   The story may have some positive features but if it’s lacking feasibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a great job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it remains a pig.

What does the reviewer do in this situation?   Focus on the writing while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around.   In other words, offer up some hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing, as I’ve learned from experience…  If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel, the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never.   Ever.   Ever.   Nope.   The writer’s response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened, and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!”   Fine, but that’s the author’s perspective  not the reviewer’s view.

In a courtroom, it’s often said that the prosecution has the burden of proof.   Well, when it comes to drafting a novel, I think the author has the burden of drafting something that’s plausible.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.”   The same is and should be true for a book reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it’s critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he/she sees it.   Play it as it lays.

There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.”   But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – it’s either on the written page (“On all fours,” as law professors say) or its absent.   And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent, the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal.   Your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Life: A Memoir by Keith Richards, which is now available in trade paperback, unabridged audiobook, Kindle Edition and Nook Book forms/formats.

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On the Way Home

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt

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 (Algonquin Books) 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 back cover of Pictures of You 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 is 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, alternately 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 assumes 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 guilt with 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 its negative.   Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Pictures of You was released by Algonquin Books in January of 2011.

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.

Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,”  Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Great Book Giveaway

This site picked Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger as the best book released in the year 2009.   Now, thanks to Regal Literary, we are happy to celebrate the release of this novel in trade paperback form by giving away a free copy!

How much, exactly, did we love Her Fearful Symmetry?   Well, we published not one or two but three separate reviews of the dramatic ghost story (September 23, 2009; September 28, 2009; November 7, 2009).   Here is a link to the first of the three reviews (“What Comes After”) that we posted:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

So, how can you win your own copy?   It’s simple, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and an e-mail address to: Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell me why stories about ghosts and/or twins are so very interesting (at least I find them so).   There are no right or wrong answers, just tell me what you think.   You have until midnight PST on Friday, September 10, 2010 to submit your entry(s).

The winner, as drawn by Munchy the cat, will be notified via e-mail and will have 72 hours to provide a residential mailing address in the United States.   The winner’s copy of Her Fearful Symmetry will be shipped directly to her/him by Regal Literary.   The book will not be sent to a business address or a P.O. box.  This is it for the simple rules.

Good luck and good reading!

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