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Strange Days

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)

“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”

“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”

If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later.   The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…

Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense.   In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels.   There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.

All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy.   I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta.   As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.

The latter is a key point.   In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident.   We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son.   Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara.   (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk.   How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)

This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before  him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB.   Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that.   The truth is, the typical reader will  not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.

“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”

John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home.   This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.

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Another Summer Reading List

Back on June 13th, we posted a list of 10 books comprising part of our summer reading list.   Now, here’s a listing of 11 additional books that you might put in your Summer beach bag or your Winter vacation suitcase!

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz

The new “great American novel” (Abraham Verghese) from the author of Reservation Road and The Commoner.   (Random House, July)

The Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

The amazing true and suspenseful story behind the assassination of President James A. Garfield, and the attempts of a genius inventor (Alexander Graham Bell) to save his life.   (Doubleday, September)

Pinch Me: A Novel by Adena Halpern

A young woman whose family has always warned her to stay away from perfectly handsome men receives a proposal of marriage from a man who is sadly “perfect.”   (Touchstone Books, July)

The Vault: A Novel by Boyd Morrison

The author who proved that self-published writers could sell books like his novel The Ark is back with a thriller.   In The Vault, a group of terrorists are determined to use the secrets of King Midas for their destructive purposes.   (Touchstone Books, July)

Requiem for a Gypsy by Michael Genelin

This is the latest Jana Matinova Investigation from Michael Genelin, who has been called “the Tom Clancy of International Intrigue.”   The Pittsburg Post-Gazette noted that this former prosecutor, “seems incapable of writing a dull page.”   (Soho Crime, July)

The Grief of Others: A Novel by Leah Hagen Cohen

This novel is about a couple that strives to return to  normalcy after their baby dies just a day and  a half after his birth.   Can the Ryries and their two children rebuild their formerly happy and peaceful existence?   (Riverhead Hardcover, September)

No Rest for the Dead: A Novel by 26 writers

A murder mystery is written in 26 chapters by 26 different, prominent authors.   It’s an almost irresistable concept and, even better, it is set in San Francisco.   (Touchstone, July)

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

A novel set aboard the funeral train that carried Robert F. Kennedy to Arlington Cemetery.   (Putnam Books, October)

Mercy Come Morning by Lisa T. Berger

A female history professor travels to Taos, New Mexico to be with her mother who is dying of heart failure.   (Waterbrook Press, August)

The Art of Saying Goodbye by Ellyn Bache

Four women come to re-evaluate their lives in light of the knowledge that the most popular woman in the neighborhood is dying of cancer.   “…a glimpse into the lives of (an) intertwined group of women and their everlasting, complicated friendships.”   New York Journal of Books   (William Morrow, June)

Love Lies Bleeding by Jess Mcconkey

A golden girl has a perfect life until a random act of violence seems to change everything.   Is she going insane or has the world suddenly become hostile?   (William Morrow, July)

Joseph Arellano

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Tragedy

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Random House; $15.00; 352 pages)

“Most of our fears are petty and small…  Only our love is monumental.”

In Every Last One, author Anna Quindlen gives us a monumental – yet quietly reserved – look at the life of a typical American family, before and after the family is rocked by an unimaginable tragedy.   This is the story of Mary Beth Latham, a basically stay-at-home mom who operates a landscaping business; her ophthalmologist husband, Glen; daughter Ruby; and her fraternal twin sons, Max and Alex.   Although we observe their lives through Mary Beth’s eyes, we come to know Ruby the best.   She’s a senior in high school who is about to leave the nest for a yet-to-be determined college.

Mary Beth at one point ponders whether it is a woman’s role to persevere after everyone she loves has left her.   But she thinks about this at a time when everyone she loves remains close to her.   This is when she’s the woman who worries about the smallest of concerns, when her life goes on as normal.   But normal is not lasting…

Daughter Ruby has known her friend Kiernan since childhood, and he becomes obsessed with her and all of the Lathams.   Kiernan comes to become less of a boyfriend to Ruby than a stalker, and someone who uses any excuse to keep company with the Latham family.   Ruby realizes that she’s going to have to reject Kiernan soon – and before she departs for her future life.

When tragedy strikes Mary Beth must become a survivor.   Everyone around her fails at offering comfort; instead, they impose their expectations on her as to how they believe she should act.   The people she worked so hard to please, to impress, to be close to all let her down.

Eventually Mary Beth comes to see – as we all must – that she cannot live her life in a manner that pleases others.   She simply must continue, even if the reasons for doing so are not clear.

“It’s all I know how to do.   This is my life.   I am trying.”

It is impossible to describe the nature of the calamity that Mary Beth experiences without betraying the story, and this summary does not disclose it.   Suffice it to say that when it occurs the reader will think the narrative is over.   In the hands of a less skilled writer it would be.   But Quindlen is at her best in writing the tale of a woman who is strong when the world believes she has been stripped of her heart and her soul.

“The silence is as big as the sky…”

Author Quindlen teaches the reader that life is not predictable, that one must be prepared to start over at any time.   It is, after all, the nature of every life.   Life, for better or worse, every year, month, day, and each and every minute.   It is all to be treasured, and readers may come to justifiably treasure this impressive work from the subtly gifted mind and pen of Anna Quindlen.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Every Last One will be released in trade paperback form on Tuesday, March 22, 2011.

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A review of Every Last One: A Novel by Anna Quindlen.

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A Well Respected Man

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings (Random House; $35.00; 640 pages)

William Somerset Maugham, author of the wonderful novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, wildly successful playwright and debonaire world traveler, was a decidedly private person.   He suffered from a crippling stutter, felt uneasy around most people, and throughout his long life he jealously and vehemently concealed the fact that he was bisexual.   Well, mostly gay.   He endured a long and miserable marriage to a brash and manipulative woman, Syrie Maugham.   And before he died he insisted that all of his personal letters and correspondence be burned.   If not for the fact that many of his friends and lovers retained the letters he wrote to them in spite of this fact, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much fascinating material on which to draw.   While reading Selina Hastings’ biography, which is culled to a large extent from these letters, I felt a bit of remorse knowing that it was his wish that his “secrets” accompany him to the grave.   But I read it with zeal and enjoyment nonetheless and comforted myself with the knowledge that a brilliant and wickedly observant writer born in this century – as opposed to the late 1800s – would not have felt the sad need to cloister his activities and thoughts in this way.

A good deal of Maugham’s writing, especially Of Human Bondage, is autobiographical: it depicts the wanton and forlorn abandon with which a man, often hindered by a physical defect that alienates him from his peers, can crave and seek the attention of a reprehensible mate.   The female object of this slaving and desperate attention, never his equal in intellect or virtue, cycles though phrases of appreciation and disdain, ultimately taking advantage of him and rejecting his honest but pathetic advances.   Selina Hastings succeeds in shedding light on the host of painful personal experiences, such as the loss of his mother and father at a young age that resulted in an exile to his stern uncle’s vicarage, his years as a resident physician in London’s poorest neighborhoods and the uncomfortable lifelong relationship he had with his younger male lover, that drove him to write about such dismal subject matter so tellingly.   What she does not do, however, is to offer much on how he often managed to take these bleak tales and turn them into mild or even hopeful visions on life and the world or whether he shared the curiously calm view of many of his characters that the world is a benign place with all of its millions of threads woven life a tapestry, a place that tosses us about with no ill- or good-will.

The remainder of his prolific literary output, such as the shorter novels and collections of short stories and vignettes, was largely gathered from overheard or shared conversations within his circle of famous and worldly friends or on his extensive travels throughout the Pacific and China.   He carried a notebook with him wherever he went, recording bits of dialogue or expressed thoughts, and turned them – sometimes with the nearly verbatim remnants of his notebook entries still intact – into stories and plays.   Reading the accounts of where and when he came by some of the actual material was a real delight.   By far my favorite bits of the biography were the accounts of his actual writing habits.   Each morning he retreated at an early hour to his study and sat and wrote for hours before continuing to the rest of his social and familial duties; he often studied classics and languages for hours in the morning if he had nothing to write.

This biography is thorough, well-written and despite its length and level of detail, leaves you even more curious about Mr. Maugham.   It lends a great deal of understanding to his actions, choices and the topics about which he wrote without extending too much bias, which is something from which many biographies suffer.   Maugham was without a doubt one of the most fascinating, dedicated and talented writers in recent history.   What a joy it is to be able to learn about his life, understand the processes he used to craft stories, get a glimpse of so many of his personal letters and get a taste of the many interesting (and famous in their own right) people and places he knew and loved.

Christine Van Winkle

Used by permission.   To see  more of Christine’s reviews (literary and otherwise) go to http://www.thewritechristine.com/ .

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Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction by Tracy Winn (Random House; $14.00)

“Lucy Mattsen was nobody – like all the women I worked with – until the day the baby fell out the window.”

With that near-perfect opening sentence, Tracy Winn delivers a collection of short stories that promises more than they deliver.   This is not a bad collection, it’s just that the stories are uneven in tone although they – in theory – are joined by being the tales of a group of individuals who lived in a dying mill town in the Northeastern region of the United States.   These are stories about people in different walks of life:  rich by inheritance and work versus the poor; old bloods versus immigrant arrivals; foppish people of privilege who live in dated but glorious mansions versus the people who live down in the boondocks in the abandoned mills.

What these individuals have in common is that of all the places to live in the world, in this country, they have chosen (or had chosen for them) to live in a place whose time has come and gone.   There’s a sense that they are ghosts in the town where one mill operates in the place of the six that once made it a place of prosperity.   And even that one remaining mill closes.

It is left to the reader to determine the time frame, the date, of each story.   Generally the only clue provided by Winn is a mention of the make and model of an automobile (Chevy Bel Air, Chevette, Dodge Aspen).   Other than this, there’s a sense of disorientation that occasionally may remind the reader of Audrey Niffenegger’s (Her Fearful Symmetry) prose.

Winn can write:  “He imagined her taking long strides under the sprawling shade trees, past the trim hedges of sunny Fairmont Avenue…  the lithe lines of her, the symmetry of her lean face, her pulse beating in the tender skin below her ear.   She’d swing her bare arms, the hot sun on her face, her skirt swishing declaratively.   She walked the way she thought, in a straight clear path.   She sliced through life, clean-edged.”

The issue is that while Winn can build interest in her characters, to this reader they never felt like real persons, true human beings; the stories  often have the feel of writing exercises, of something written for an academic assignment.   Thus, we never come to feel at one with these individuals; these quasi-ghosts remain just that.   (They are not persons we wish to spend much time with.)

The best stories in this group come at the end, as if Winn was beginning to warm up, to find her voice, the closer she came to completing the work.   Tracy Winn surely shows her potential here, although the potential is largely unrealized.   If you’re currently in the market for a collection of short stories, a preferable choice would be Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy (reviewed on this site on June 21, 2010, “Having It All”).   But be warned that Meloy does not open her set with a near-perfect first sentence.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction by Tracy Winn.

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A Fine and Fun Book Giveaway

Thanks to Megan at HarperCollins, we have two (2) copies to give away of the forthcoming debut novel by Dana Precious, Born Under a Lucky Moon.   This book will be released by Morrow Paperback on Tuesday, February 8, 2011 ($14.95).   Here is a synopsis of the story and a brief profile of the author.

Born Under a Lucky Moon is the tale of two very important (but distant) years in the lives of Jeannie Thompson and her (embarrassing, crazy) colorful family members to whom “things” just happen.   From the Great Lakes of Michigan to Los Angeles and back again, it is a story of surprise marriages, a renegade granny, a sprinkler system cursed by the gods, and myriad other factors Jeannie blames for her full-tilt and out-of-control existence.   But it’s also about good surprises – like an unexpected proposal that might just open Jeannie’s eyes to her real place among the people she loves most in the world…  the same ones she ran far away from to begin with.

“Lucky the reader who picks up this funny, charming and touching debut novel.   I loved it.”   Susan Elizabeth Phillips, New York Times bestselling author

Dana Precious lives in L.A. with her husband and son.   She has two dogs: a small border terrier named Thompson (as in Hunter – long story) and Bella, a very large bullmastiff whose activity of choice is sleeping on the couch and watching Oprah. Prior to writing, Diana worked for several major film studios.

So, you can probably tell that this is going to be a fun one to read!   How can you win a copy?   Simply by posting a comment with your name and e-mail address here, or doing the same by sending an e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry in the contest.   For a second entry, please answer this question that Munchy the cat came up with, “What is the craziest thing about someone in your family (human or animal)?”

You have until Sunday, February 20, 2011 at Midnight PST to submit your entry or entries.   In order to be eligible to be a winner in this contest, you must live in the United States or Canada, and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to P. O. boxes or to business-related addresses.

The winners will be picked by Munchy, and will be notified by e-mail.   They will have 72 hours to supply their mailing addresses when contacted.   This is it for the complex contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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When I Was Young

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine Books trade paperback; $15.00; 288 pages)

last-time-i-saw-you

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg is a novel guaranteed to appeal to Boomers.   It’s the story of 58-year-olds who attended Whitley High School together and who are gathering for what is said to be their “last reunion.”   Why they won’t be gathering again is never clear, but we do know that the glamorous Candy Sullivan has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.   Her husband insists that this is just a first opinion, but Candy knows better and is determined to enjoy what little time is left to her.

“The diagnosis let her recalculate the meaning of time and relationships.”

Berg, the author of Home Safe, has a smooth and relaxing style and she’s at her best when describing human vulnerabilities.   At one point, a male character feels sorry for the spouses who have been dragged along to the reunion.   Then “all of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.  Here they all are, these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

The Last Time celebrates the joy of spending moments with those who knew you in times past, while highlighting the futility of getting them to accept you as a new and different person.   It’s an enjoyable read that’s deeper than it first appears.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Disco Duck

Little Duck Says Quack by Judy Dunn, Author and Phoebe Dunn, Photographer (Random House Books for Young Readers [Board Book]; $8.99; 14 pages)

“The little duck stood up on his big orange feet.”

This is a very special children’s book, written by Judy Dunn and illustrated with pictures by world-renowned photographer Phoebe Dunn.   In addition, there is a button that, when pressed, sounds out a very realistic greeting, “Quack, quack, quack.”   The book has sturdy pages that will withstand many readings, first by adults to a child or children, and later as a book to be read by the child.

The story chronicles the life of Henry, a handsome duck, from before he hatches until his ultimate transition to adult life in a pond.   Along the way, Henry grows up and makes the acquaintance of many creatures, including a dog, a hen, a bunny, and a goat.   While he enjoys playing with the boy who found him, he wishes for more from life.   A nearby pond contains the answer to his wish.

Please note:  This reviewer’s kitty was somewhat taken aback by the notion of a duck in the house!   After a few repeats of “Quack, quack, quack” the novelty wore off.   Little children likely will not tire of pressing the magic button.

Highly Recommended for children and their caretakers.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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