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Simple Survival

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey: A Novel by Walter Mosley (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 288 pages)

“Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity…”   Bob Dylan

When Robyn, a young woman of seventeen, rekindles in ninety-one year old Ptolemy Grey, either consciously or subconsciously, the will to actively engage in life, the phrase, “Be careful what you ask for,” comes to mind.

Ptolemy’s brain is a jumbled mess of neurons, and the fuzziness of his inner mind is adeptly reflected in Walter Mosley’s prose.   There are no chapters or definitive breaks in the storyline.   Rather, the book is 277-pages of a third person account of Ptolemy – an African-American man – trying to connect episodes of his past and present in a way that actually makes sense of them.

Ptolemy lives in squalor in a Los Angeles neighborhood where local characters threaten the old man in search of his pension checks.   The initial pages invite the reader to like, root for, and sympathize with Ptolemy, but as the story unfolds, the warts of all of the characters involved are revealed.   The moral high ground is a mass of gray in this violent world in which survival is the only reality that matters.

Reggie is Ptolemy’s caretaker.   He helps him cash his checks, buy groceries, and run errands.   When he doesn’t show up for a matter of weeks, the reader eventually learns that he has been murdered.   Through circumstance Ptolemy and Robyn forge a relationship.   She takes him to see Dr. Ruben, whom Ptolemy refers to as the Devil.   Ptolemy agrees to treatment with an experimental drug that will temporarily restore his clarity but ensure a rapid death.

In the weeks he has left, Ptolemy sets out on a quest to make sense of losses he endured throughout the various stages of his life:  his loves – successful, unsuccessful, and unrequited; and, as he becomes more cogent, seeks to put his finances in order to take care of those he considers deserving of a mysterious and surprisingly significant estate.

But defying Father Time comes at a cost.   Whatever the benefits for those that remain after Ptolemy departs, the reader is left at the end to wonder if the man who must inevitably slip back to his previous state is any better off than he was before and, for those inclined to consider such things, what might await him next.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Mosley’s depiction of the indignities of old age is heartbreaking, and Ptolemy’s grace and decency make for a wonderful character and a moving novel.”   Publisher’s Weekly

“Simple survival is the greatest victory.”   Bob Dylan

Note:   Some readers with a long memory will see some parallels between this story and the film Charly based on the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

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Against the Wind

In the Rooms: A Novel by Tom Shone (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 342 pages)

She probably only dated snowboarders with a rap sheet as long as their arm, the cheekbones of Viggo Mortensen, and a penchant for whittling driftwood into small but meaningful tokens of their appreciation for Life’s Bounteous Gifts.   I failed on both fronts.   I had neither misbehaved with sufficient abandon nor reformed myself with enough zeal.   I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else.

This debut novel might have been entitled Dim Lights, Big City as it is a reverse  image of Jay McInerney’s book and film Bright Lights, Big City.   In McInerney’s story, a young man turns to drinking and drugs to evade the memories of  his dead mother and an estranged wife.   In Tom Shone’s novel, protagonist Patrick Miller turns to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as a way of shoring up his sagging career as a Manhattan-based literary agent.

Miller, who grew up in England (like his creator), has been shaken up by relationship problems – his girlfriend is bitterly honest about his flaws – and this has affected his ability to attract successful writers to the firm he works for.   And then, suddenly, he finds that his favorite author in the world – one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Douglas Kelsey – is back in the Big Apple after spending years hiding out in the artists’ community of Woodstock.   Miller impulsively follows Kelsey when he spots him one day out on the streets of the city, and learns that the trail ends at an AA meeting in a church.

How is Miller going to get to speak to the reclusive Kelsey, a modern-day J.D. Salinger?   Well, simple, he will just pretend that he has a drinking problem and begin joining the meetings “in the rooms” of NYC.   But, actually, it’s not so simple because as he carries out his plan, Miller finds that he’s now lying all of the time to the two sets of people in his life – to his co-workers, he insists that he’s not a heavy drinker and does not have a problem (they think he’s in denial); to his new fellow AA members, he insists that he can’t handle his liquor or his women (oh, so he’s co-addicted to sex, just as they suspected).

If things aren’t complicated enough, Miller is soon attracted to Lola, a young woman he meets at one of these meetings – a woman who serves as a trusted liaison between him and the respected author – and they begin to get physical.   But, Catch-22, the rules of AA prohibit them from getting close to each other for a minimum of a year – a year based on mutual sobriety.   Eventually, Miller is not quite sure what he wants and just as he’s becoming addicted to Lola, his ex-flame comes back into his life.

If all of this sounds a bit glum, it’s not as told by Shone.   The novel is quite funny, as my wife can testify since I read no less than 8 or 9 lengthy excerpts of it to her…  Readers will identify with Miller as he’s a want-to-be nice guy who makes mistake after mistake, even after he’s decided mentally that he’s going to get his act together.   It seems that he just can’t win, as life keeps throwing unexpected changes his way.

Shone makes the telling especially interesting with many insights into both the book publishing world and AA.   While his characters are sometimes critical of the 12-step process, they’re also positive that the program works.   Here’s the ever-cynical Kelsey on Bill (Wilson) of the Big Book:   “Well, Bill’s no Steinbeck.   That’s for sure.   There’s nothing original to any of it.   He filched the whole thing.   It’s just religion’s greatest hits.”

The more that Patrick Miller learns about AA, the more he wonders if he may indeed have some problems.   Whether he drinks too much or not, virtually every AA member that he encounters tells him that he spends too much time inside of his head.   Miller is so busy analyzing life, and trying to find the right path and rules to follow, that it seems to be passing him by.

The true charm of In the Rooms, is its conclusion, in which our hero must make the right choices – the exact right choices – to prove to himself and others that he  is, in truth, the nice guy that he’s always wanted to be.   He’s helped along in this by what he’s come to learn “in the rooms” and so he comes to see that – ah, yes – it works!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “Sharp, funny, and ultimately touching…  Recommended for readers of Nick Hornby and Joshua Ferris.”   Library Journal

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This Diamond Ring

Death of a Chimney Sweep, A Hamish Macbeth Mystery by M.C. Beaton (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 256 pages)

Surprise!   A wicked sense of humor runs throughout this 26th mystery novel written by M.C. Beaton.   There are plenty of red herrings and portents of things to come as the plot wends its way through the Scottish moors and into the big city of Glasgow.   Country Police Constable Hamish Macbeth lumbers along at his own pace trying to solve the murders of a retired military officer who was out for a walk on the moors and a local fellow, the sweep who was cleaning the chimney at the officer’s home.

The trail to the solution is littered with corpses, most of which belonged to people who deserved what happened to them.   No spoiler alert is needed here as Beaton’s book titles are indicative of mayhem and murder.   This meandering plot is, in the end, tied up neater than an Elfa storage solution from The Container Store.   The pieces interlock and hold together well.

The military man left behind a timid mouse of a wife.   Milly, his widow, appears to be quite shy and yet she manages to win the hearts and engagement rings of a couple of fellows not long after her husband’s demise.   Her husband, Captain Henry Davenport, had engaged in a bit of fraud that brought in scads of money from unwitting investors eager to make a killing.   The search for the whereabouts of the money fuels the killing spree.

Constable Macbeth is a clever redhead who cherishes his freedom and the quiet solitude of a secret fishing spot.   He has little time for fishing as he, a past fiance, a former girlfriend and his pets spend much time and energy trying to cut short the killing spree that results from Davenport’s fraud.   Beaton goes in for a bit of exotica as Macbeth’s cat is no ordinary kitty.   No sir!   Sonsie is a wildcat!

If you’re not familiar with this author, as is the case with this reviewer, be comforted in the knowledge that there’s more – lots more – where this came from.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Lonely Days

The Upright Piano Player: A Novel by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95, 264 pages)

“In the old days he would inspire them, lift their spirits, and send them back to their desks with renewed energy and enthusiasm.   Now he simply wanted to say goodbye and slip away.”

Henry Cage is a man who has earned the right to enjoy a quiet life.   At least it appears this way before his life turns into a series of explosions.   Cage, the founder of a highly successful international advertising firm based in London, is suddenly forced into retirement in November of 1999 – outfoxed by a legion of new, young and restless (rudely ambitious) partners who cannot wait for him to ride off into the sunset.

Henry Cage is barely out the door of the advertising firm when he learns that his ex-wife, Nessa, is gravely ill.   Nessa lives in Florida.   She does not have much time left and would like to see Henry.   Henry very much loved Nessa until she had a well-publicized affair with an actor, something that brought shame and ridicule to Henry once it was mentioned in London’s daily papers.   Although decades have passed, Henry’s not sure that he’s forgiven Nessa and he certainly has no desire to revisit past events.

And then there’s an angry young man out there on the streets of the city, a failure in life – a man with a broken arm (broken like his future) – who seeks to take his anger out on a symbol of success.   By chance, this man happens to pick Henry as the person whose life he will make miserable…  So miserable does he make Henry that it appears a confrontation between the two is inevitable; it’s likely to be a confrontation so dramatic that only one of them will survive.

The reader also learns, through a non-chronological device, that Henry will have even more to deal with – the loss of the one thing that he sees as irreplaceable.   This is a morality tale about good versus evil, hope versus surrender, and love versus despair.   You’ll want to root for Henry to survive as he’s a representation of us all as we battle the unexpected (and often undeserved) events in our lives.

If you’ve read and loved the novels of Catherine O’Flynn (What Was Lost, The News Where You Are), you will no doubt also love this work.   Like O’Flynn, Abbott writes in a quiet, reserved English voice.   Although you may rush through it, the impression is given that the writer had all of the time in the world to construct the tale – there is never a sense of modern-day impatience.

Abbot’s ability to capture and make meaningful the small details in life calls to mind John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road, The Commoner), whose novels are always engaging.   Further, there’s a tragedy in Piano Player that mirrors something that happened in Reservation Road.

David Abbott, whose real life just happened to be a lot like the life of Henry Cage, has fashioned a wonderful debut novel.   I certainly look forward to reading his next story.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Upright Piano Player will be released on June 7, 2011.

“David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player is a wise and moving debut, an accomplished novel of quiet depths and resonant shadows.”   John Burnham Schwartz

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Torn Between Two Lovers

A Place of Yes: 10 Rules for Getting Everything You Want Out of Life by Bethenny Frankel with Eve Adamson (Touchstone; $24.99; 336 pages) or The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brenne Brown (Hazelden Publishing; $14.95; 260 pages)

Let’s be practical and admit that one size does not fit all.   For that matter, one approach to self-realization is not the answer for everyone.   With that in mind these two books are being reviewed in a comparison of sorts.

Each of the authors is a well-known figure with their own realm.   Bethenny Frankel has accomplished the following: hosting her own reality TV show – Bethenny Ever After, developing a wildly popular beverage line – Skinny Girl Margaritas, which she has recently sold to the big boys of the adult beverage industry, and writing several well-received books relating to her expertise in dieting and healthy cooking.   Dr. Brenne Brown is also the author of several books, a university professor and a licensed social worker in the state of Texas.   She is an expert in the area of shame and her findings have been featured on Public Broadcasting as well as on commercial television, including the Oprah Show.Both women are mothers and profess to be very happily married to their respective husbands.   They share the need to overcome traumas from their childhoods that have had great impact on their adult lives.   The reader is presented with 10 steps to use in moving toward a better life that the author has crafted based on her own growth and development.   In Bethenny’s case, the 10 rules for living are dished up with a generous helping of her life story and in Brene’s, they are guideposts based on her qualitative research of the notion of wholehearted living along with glimpses into her life.

You may be seeking a wholehearted life or wish to come from a place of yes.   These are the two concepts featured in the books.   The reader is addressed directly by the authors and made privy to rather personal information that serves to create a somewhat therapeutic relationship.   Both of them provide insights into the notion of leading a satisfying and fulfilling life.   Here is where the similarities end.

Bethenny sounds like the New Yorker she is and comes off as a combination cheerleader/Dutch uncle – in a good way.   There’s plenty of straight talk offered in a smart, funny convincing style.   Her freewheeling, no guts, no glory approach to life’s challenges is blunt and direct.   She urges the reader to break the chain that anchors the reader to the past.   Yes, s**t happens and something happened to you.   The reader is told to quit looking back letting what happened then shape your life now.

Brene uses a voice as one would imagine coming from a credentialed university professor and lecturer.   Moreover, her publisher, Hazelden, is a well-respected institution in the field of addiction treatment and recovery.   Her style can best be described as reporting out, speaking directly to the reader using conclusions she has reached after years of carefully conducted research.   The gently encouraging guideposts are clearly non-threatening.   A sense of disclosure reminiscent of a Twelve-Step meeting permeates the book.

The choice is up to you!   Regardless of your style preference, the book you choose will be quite engaging and may even get you to move your life in a better direction.   Highly recommended are both books.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Happenings Ten Years Time Ago

Fragile: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Broadway; $15.00; 352 pages)

“The sins of a family always fall on the daughter.”   P.F. Sloan

“She already knew the hard edges of the world, knew that life disappointed and that most people’s dreams never did come true.”   Lisa Unger

This one is a stunner.   In Fragile, author Lisa Unger tells the story of four fragile lives that are joined together by events separated by twenty years.   Unger’s genius is in plotting the story so that the reader never knows what’s coming next.

The story starts with a look-in at what appears to be a crime being committed, although the facts are not clear.   What is clear is that a young woman, Charlene, has gone missing.   She intended to run away from her sleepy community, The Hollows, in New York State in order to make music in Manhattan.   But she’s suddenly fallen off the face of the earth.

The residents of The Hollows, including the young woman’s mother and her boyfriend Ricky’s parents, are forced to revisit their memories of a high school girl named Sarah who disappeared two decades earlier.   She was found dead, mutilated; a crime to which a male classmate confessed.   But the young man who said he killed her was troubled and perhaps mentally unstable.   He went on to spend years in state prison, before he died by his own hand.

With this background we fear that Charlene has been abducted or murdered by the evil force or forces that killed Sarah.   Charlene’s mother was a classmate of Sarah’s, as was Ricky’s mother, Maggie and his police detective father.   These adults are all keeping secrets about their lives both now and at the time that Sarah was killed.

Others in the community also know things about the events surrounding the past crime, but they’re not talking.   The residents of The Hollows become frozen with the fear that they are reliving a nightmare and elect to hide rather than speak.   With little information to go on, the local police force begins to suspect Ricky’s involvement in Charlene’s disappearance.   Charlene did, after all, stand him up on the night she left home and had informed her friends about another boyfriend in New York City.

As the tale proceeds, we see that there are no perfect families in The Hollows.   The parents criticize their children for doing the very things they did when they were young, and this simply piques the desire of the young to escape as soon as they can.   The current mystery, the apparent crime that surrounds the disappearance of Charlene, will only be solved by confessions.   Because there may very well be links between what may have happened to Charlene and what happened “twenty years time ago” to Sarah.

“As she told them all about her buried memory, she felt an awe at how their separate lives were twisted and tangled, growing over and around each other…  And how the connections between them were as terribly fragile as they were indelible.”

There will be no hints here – no spoiler alerts needed – as to the fate of Charlene and Ricky, except to note that Unger convinces us that everything in life is so well-connected (if hardly explainable).   The past is, indeed, prelude.   This is a read that will stay with you.

Unique, stunning.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Fragile will be released as a trade paperback book on May 17, 2011.

“…filled with perfectly written sentences…”   New Mystery Reader

“A rich tapestry of psychological wounds…”   Kirkus Reviews


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When the Ship Comes In

Between Shades of Gray: A Novel by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel; $17.99; 344 pages)

In the epilogue to Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, protagonist Lina speaks to us from a time capsule:  “It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar…  prompt you to do something, to tell someone.   Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.”

The story that she has buried in that jar begins in 1941 in Lithuania.   Lina, who is fifteen, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are at home one evening when the Soviet secret police come to the door.   Through her eyes we watch as the three are deported to Siberia.   Lina’s father, a professor who has aided relatives’ emigration to Germany has been arrested.   His actions were prompted by the hope that the relatives might, in turn, help his own family escape Stalin’s tyranny.

As the truth of their situation gradually unfolds for Lina, she draws images of horror and images of heroism, and tucks the sketches into the lining of her suitcase.   It’s an act of silent rebellion that she knows is both brave and foolish.   But she is an artist who is desperate to record the history of the ordinary people swept up in Stalin’s purges.   Through Lina’s eyes we see a portrait of true grace emerge in Mother, a woman whose calm, kindness, and humanity buoy the spirits of everyone else.   We see how memories have the power to sustain and what happens when hope is lost.

What we do not see is why Stalin shipped this trainload of slave labor all the way across Siberia and north to the Arctic Circle to do work that seems only to sustain the comfort of the soldiers who guard them.   Perhaps Sepetys intended the apparent illogic of the labor camp’s location to be yet another layer of punishment – another obstacle to hopefulness.

Sepety’s characters are fascinating, even those who are the verbal equivalent of pencil sketchesthe bald man, the man who wound his watch, the repeater.   Her spare prose is reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s.   Between Shades of Gray depicts the effects of a moral disaster rather than Buck’s natural ones, but both authors know their story is so intrinsically dramatic that it needs no melodrama.   Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, published the novel, Sepety’s first, in March of 2011.   Highly recommended – and not just for young readers.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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