Tag Archives: popular fiction

The Losing End

Forever is the Worst Long Time: A Novel by Camille Pagan (Lake Union, $24.95, 276 pages)

“It’s so hard to make love pay/ When you’re on the losing end/ And I feel that way again…”  Neil Young

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Synopsis:

When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life.  There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his best and oldest friend, Rob.  So James becomes Rob’s Best Man, toasting the union of Rob and Lou and hiding his desire for The Perfect Woman.

Review:

With this setup, one can pretty much guess what’s coming in this third novel from author Pagan (Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, The Art of Forgetting).  And one’s guess would be right about half of the time.  Pagan adds some unexpected twists and turns that help to keep the story somewhat interesting.  The plot line is not the problem.

The tone of the story, the narrator’s voice, is where difficulties arise.  It’s sometimes problematic when a male author adopts a female voice, and vice versa.  It is an issue here.  This book is written in the form of a journal – a document to be read by James’ daughter in order to learn about her past.  (Novels in the form of journals seem to be the latest craze.)  The journal reads in a flat tone; in fact, it begins to drone on like a car on the freeway stuck in second gear.  Yes, early on Pagan shifts from first to second, but the reader mourns the absence of third, fourth, and overdrive in this journey of almost 300 pages.

And then there’s the issue of humor.  It was absent in this work which felt overly dramatic.  One of the strengths of bestselling authors like Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner – writers who similarly deal with love, loss and redemption – is that they enliven their stories with stress-relieving humor.  (This enables the reader to relax and avoid the feeling of reading a one note soap opera.)

“This story ends with loss,” said your mother.  “I’m only on the first chapter, but I can tell.”

Basically, this novel proves the truth of the notion that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.  I hope that in her future works Pagan adds more life to her tales and spirit and volume.  Reading this book, for me, was like trying to listen to music being played in a far-off room.  The experience was muffled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on February 7, 2017.

On the writing of Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner:

Home Safe (by Berg) is written with humor and elegance.”  – Chicago Tribune

Home Safe explores, with insight and humor, what it’s like to lose everything and to emerge from the other side.”  – St. Petersburg Times

“Hilarious, heartbreaking, and insightful, Weiner shows she can write with exquisite tenderness as well as humor.”  – The Miami Herald

 

 

 

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Angst in Their Pants

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

The reign of dreariness…

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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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The Long and Twisting Road

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I Let You Go: A Novel by Clare Mackintosh (Berkley, $26.00, 384 pages; Penguin Publishing, $16.00, 400 pages)

British author Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel, I Let You Go, works at many levels.  For those who enjoy intrigue there are multiple twists and turns right up to the end.  Solid writing and character development should satisfy most readers who are simply interested in a good story.

In this story, a little boy named Jacob is tragically killed in a hit and run incident, and a persistent law enforcement officer, Kate, will not let the case go.  Jenna Gray seeks refuge in a remote tourist spot named Penfach.  She is ultimately apprehended and charged with the murder, but, from the start, things are never what they seem.  Surprises abound throughout.

Roy, Kate’s partner and superior, sorts through the complex feelings he has for her as he struggles with the realities of his marriage and family.  Jenna attempts to learn to trust again after a lifetime of heartache.  Strangers regularly indulge in random acts of kindness.  And still, evil lurks and must eventually be conquered.

Mackintosh chooses to consistently shift points of view and tells the story in both the third person and first person and through the eyes of multiple characters.  This creates some choppiness in the narrative that would likely not be evident in a second or third novel, or coming from a more experienced novelist. Most readers should, however, be able to work through this without it affecting their enjoyment of what is otherwise a good suspense story.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

I Let You Go is available in both hardbound and trade paperback editions.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

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Lying in Wait

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The Marriage Lie: A Novel by Kimberly Belle (Mira, $15.99, 334 pages)

Synopsis:

Iris and Will have been married for seven years, and life is as close to perfect as it can be. But on the morning Will flies out for a business trip to Florida, Iris’s happy world comes to an abrupt halt: another plane headed for Seattle has crashed into a field, killing everyone on board and, according to the airline, Will was one of the passengers.

Grief stricken and confused, Iris is convinced it all must be a huge misunderstanding.

Review:

Iris Griffith always thought that her marriage to Will was secure. Together they are celebrating seven years of marriage and are trying to start a family. Will is a guest speaker in a business conference and leaves in the morning for Orlando. Later that afternoon, Iris is notified that her husband has been killed aboard a plane that crashed en route to Seattle. Iris refuses to believe that Will is dead and is adamant that he never boarded that flight.

As the days pass, Iris still cannot believe that Will would lie about his travel plans. She decides to investigate to find out the truth, Iris begins to uncover inconsistencies in Will’s past and feels betrayed. Along the way, she meets a friend of Will’s that he has never mentioned. As her journey continues, she learns much more about Will’s past.

This psychological thriller is an addictive read because of the gradual momentum that builds throughout the story. The characters introduced in this third novel by Belle are engaging. In fact, I was not sure who to trust. It was quite the page turner!

Well recommended.

Suzanne Leopold

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Marriage Lie was released on December 27, 2016. Kimberly Belle’s prior novels were The Last Breath and The Ones We Trust.

You can read more reviews by Suzanne Leopold at Suzy Approved!:

https://suzyapproved.wordpress.com

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Home Field Advantage

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Home Field: A Novel by Hannah Gersen (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 432 pages)

One of the joys of reviewing books is when one comes across a new book or writer that was not previously on the radar screen. That is what happened to me with Hannah Gersen’s novel Home Field. Plain and simple, Gersen delivers the goods.

Gersen tells a touching story of loss and redemption that engages and avoids sentimentality. Her ability to craft meaningful and natural dialogue among characters, which is difficult for many writers, is impressive.

In Home Field, Dean Renner is a revered small town football coach in rural Maryland. However, his personal life is not as orderly or successful as his disciplined routine as that of a head coach (amid the excitement of Friday night lights).

Dean’s wife Nicole, whose first husband died young, suffers from depression and ultimately commits suicide in the most unsettling of ways. His stepdaughter, Stephanie, wrestles with the loss of a father she never knew followed by her mother’s untimely death. Dean battles his own troubles as years of emotional isolation during his marriage took its toll. Was Nicole’s unhappiness due to Dean’s obsession with coaching, or did he absorb himself in coaching to fill the void that her mental illness created in his life? Or, is it just the way of things that the unscripted complexities of life do not lend themselves to executing a plan in the way that X’s and O’s on a chalkboard equal success on the field?

On top of it, Dean must play single father to his two boys, one of whom – Robbie, is a mystery to him. Robbie’s attraction to the theater and his extreme sensitivity are foreign to Dean’s practical, tactical approach to life. It is Robbie who holds the mirror up to the characters’ souls; it’s his actions that bring the events in the story to a head, and bring the hearts of the community together.

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Coach Renner appears to achieve some peace of mind as the story comes to a close. But, one question remains. He could not save his wife from herself. So while he works miracles with other people’s kids, can he save his own?

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Arsenic and Old Lace

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Arsenic with Austen: A Crime with the Classics Mystery by Katherine Bolger Hyde (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 312 pages)

Professor Emily Cavanaugh is a 21st Century woman who finds herself caught up in the dealings of a sleepy village on the Oregon coast. She’s been widowed for two years, is childless and growing restless with her duties in the Language and Literature Department of Reed College in Portland.

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As would be anticipated in a traditional British mystery by Agatha Christie, Emily receives a piece of formal correspondence from an attorney in Stony Beach, Oregon. It seems her dear Great Aunt Beatrice has died and left her a legacy. What follows is one of the most heart-warming murder mysteries this reviewer has read.

Emily Cavanaugh is summoned to Aunt Beatrice’s funeral and the reading of the will. It seems Emily was fantasizing a modest inheritance when she hoped that the extensive library filled with leather bound books would be hers. Emily spent many summers sitting in that same library reading with the encouragement of her aunt. Clearly, the Victorian mansion, half of the town of Stony Beach and millions of dollars was way beyond her hopeful anticipation.

Yes, there are villains scattered among the townsfolk. How else would there be a mystery for Emily to solve? She also reconnects with her former boyfriend who seemingly dumped her at the end of a summer romance. As with Dame Agatha’s stories, Ms. Hyde leads the reader around leaving a trail of tantalizing clues and misdirection.

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Author Hyde has hit all the right notes in this her debut mystery novel. She weaves in enough credible references to classic literature written by women such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte to prove her in depth understanding of the genre. While Ms. Hyde is a resident of Santa Cruz County in California, she credits a writer’s retreat on the Oregon coast with inspiring the location of her tale. And, by the way, she is an alumna of Reed College. Let’s hope there will be more enjoyable mysteries from Ms. Hyde in the future.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Arsenic with Austen was released on July 12, 2016.

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The First Album, The First Book & more

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Let’s suppose you’ve spent a few years in a rock band, The Runners. You haven’t starved, but you’ve just managed to get by in terms of life’s necessities. Finally, the band releases a first album, It’s the Runners! It may not be as big as Meet the Beatles!, but it’s brought you enough income to pay the rent for a year and buy a reliable car. Do you produce Son of It’s the Runners! or something completely different? (Either way the critics are standing by to slam your decision.) Most likely you’ll record something that’s as close as possible to the first album, and wait a while before electing to modify your style, your sound.

This is a roundabout way of explaining why I’m fond of debut novels. The first novel by an author, like a first album, is generally the result of years of preparation and effort. And it’s usually quite obvious in the pages of an initial effort. There’s an earnestness, a feel, a serious energy that’s often lacking in subsequent works. After all, the first book is a “go for broke” product. If it gets published and sells well, the writer has a new career.

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Yet, it seems like what follows for a successful debut novelist is parallel to what happens with the band recording a follow-up record. The author may think, “Why rock the boat if I’ve discovered a winning formula?” Thus, what results is a second novel that’s quite similar to the first, but without the same punch. (“Let’s Twist Again” to “The Twist.”) And it appears that publishers strongly encourage the successful debut novelist to turn out the second book pretty quickly; before the book one buzz wears off. This may be why second novels often start off well in pages 1 to 150 or 200, but conclude with what seems like a rushed and unsatisfying group of pages marked 151 to 350 or 400.

But let’s suppose, for a moment, that the second book is just successful enough. It may not approach the sales of book 1, but it may hit the 80 or 85% level. What happens then? Well, the author may decide to write the same type of book, the same style of story, over and over again for a reading audience willing to accept and purchase what can amount to a type of self-plagiarism. This is not terribly, horribly rare when it comes to authors who achieve mid-range or greater success. In fact, I remember a case not so long ago…

There’s a popular fiction writer whose books sell quite well. And reading one of her books is extremely enjoyable. But if you read any of the other novels she’s manufactured – a term I’m using deliberately – you realize that they are all basically the same story. Only the names have been changed to protect the original characters. So it was not quite shocking to receive an information sheet from her publicist a short while back about an upcoming release: “It’s completely different!” Whew, I thought, it’s about time.

And this is, of course, what happens next with both authors and bands. Eventually, they get tired and worn out with making money by repeating the same old thing. So then they record or write something that’s… “Completely different!” And it’s either viewed as a work of genius (think Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s) or as turning their back on their fans, their original audience.

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This is when the reviewer-critics attack or praise with their pens, but in my view this is secondary. What truly counts is the judgment of book and record fans/purchasers. They may decide that the more unique a work is, the better it is. Or they may hate something that reads or sounds too “different.” Either way, the “new thing” shouts out that the artist is willing to take a risk because this is what art, what life, is about.

I may be wrong, but I think that if the “new thing” came from the heart (rather than the head) of the artist – and was not simply contrived for commercial purposes, the audience will come to accept and/or love it. And in a very roundabout way, this article is an attempt to explain why I may love a writer’s first book, but not her second, third, or fourth. And it’s an attempt to explain why I might find that she’s regained her voice – her true, instinctive and once-again original form, with her fifth book.

But maybe it’s just me.

Joseph Arellano

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