Tag Archives: review copy

Livin’ La Vida Loca

The Reason You’re Alive: A Novel by Matthew Quick (Harper, $25.99, 226 pages)

reason you're alive

Living the Crazy Life

The Reason You’re Alive is, supposedly, a novel about a Holden Caulfield-like character who has reached the age (68) at which he has a seven-year-old granddaughter.  He’s angry (of course) at the government that sent him to Vietnam in his youth, ultra-conservative (OK), and perhaps more than slightly deranged.  However, author Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook) begins the story with his version of charming writing.  There is, for example, a scene in which the main character, David Granger, sits down to an imaginary tea party with granddaughter Ella.  It’s sweet and cute.  And the reader is informed that it just so happens to be the case that Ella is the “spitting image” of Granger’s dead wife – by suicide (naturally).

Jessica Granger was a painter who apparently did little else with her life – David screamed at her on what proved to be her last night on earth, “You have to contribute SOMETHING!” – except for providing Granger with a son; a son which he did not father.  Quick, as Granger, writes beautifully about Jessica:

I feel like shedding a tear or two when I think about a nineteen-year-old Jessica looking up from a canvas as big as her, smiling at me with paint smudges all over her face, like camouflage.  Her long, brown hair is always braided with pigtails, and she is perpetually in overalls, as if she were a farmer riding on a tractor.  All she needed was a piece of hay hanging out of her mouth.  You could see the light in her eyes back then.  It was as bright as goddamn June moonbeams shimmering off ocean waves still warm from day’s sun.   

At this point in the novella, not a novel, the story is quirky with some parallels to the style of The Catcher in the Rye.  But this style on the part of the writer does not last, does not hold.  It’s not long after one’s approached the halfway point of the story that Quirk goes haywire on us.  The suspension of disbelief disappears as he relates events that ring as fully implausible.  The story goes from Catcher in the Rye to Catch-22; from simply quirky to fantastical, that is, odd and bizarre.

The outright crazy part of the book focuses on a bonkers Native American soldier, Clayton Fire Bear, who Granger served with in ‘Nam.  Fire Bear – who took scalps from dead Viet Cong soldiers, sounds like a character that one would have found in Catch-22.  Granger is determined to find Fire Bear in the U.S. and achieve some type of closure with him.  There are other inane things that the story focuses on – things which I won’t waste time relating.  Suffice it to say that, in the words of a Beatles song, it’s all too much.

There are two possible explanations for the author’s diversions.  Perhaps Quick decided to transform Granger from a more than slightly unstable individual to a fully insane unreliable narrator because he believed it was clever from an intellectual – “brilliant author,” standpoint.  If so, it’s too clever by half.  The other explanation is that Quick was simply enjoying himself at the reader’s expense, setting the reader up for what seemed like a serious journey only to drop him/her into the twilight zone.  If the latter is the case, then Quick has fashioned a work that is intentionally and illogically unrestrained.

At the least, this work is inconsistent and unsatisfying.  It starts off as an engaging look at a troubled human being – one the reader can partially relate to, and concludes as a work whose faults will be overlooked by those who prefer convoluted, strange literary forests to sensical, sensible trees.

Bottom line: This book is not The Catcher in the Rye and it’s quite far – incredibly far, from being enjoyable.  Do yourself a favor and pass on it.  You have better things to do with your time.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Not So Harmonious

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Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

daylight marriage amazon

The Daylight Marriage: A Novel by Heidi Pitlor (Algonquin Paperbacks, $15.95, 254 pages)

“You could have done better but I don’t mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/Don’t think twice, it’s alright.” Bob Dylan

I’ve noted in the past that the hardest type of book to review is one that’s not an “A” or “F’; it’s a “C.” Cs, of course, represent average work. This one’s about a C-.

The Daylight Marriage has a plot that’s oddly reminiscent of Gone Girl. The attractive wife of a nice guy leaves the house and never returns. Yes, she “disappears without a trace.”

In this novella – it only runs for 245 pages; the reader figures out the ending within the first few dozen pages and yet it’s advertised as being something of a thriller. The blurb from Stephen King states, “I turned the pages with increasing dread.” Maybe King was given a different galley; stranger things have happened.

Or maybe King was referring to the simple dread that accompanies predictability. (If you read Gone Girl, or saw the movie, you know that nice husbands don’t kill their wives. Pitlor claims to have been influenced in her writing by the headline story of Laci Peterson, so there may be exceptions to this rule.)

Oh, the back of the book is loaded with positive blurbs form the likes of King, Tom Perrotta, Geraldine Brooks, Entertainment Weekly (the gospel of entertainment), and the Los Angeles Review of Books. And yet, for once, I think the readers who order from Amazon have gotten it right. On Amazon, this book has a 3 out of 5 stars rating.

There’s more. Perhaps because of the disappointment that accompanies this read, Amazon is offering this $15.95 list price book for an astonishing 79% off of its list price, or $3.39. That probably tells you all you need to know.

daylight marriage

You might pick this one up if you are willing to gamble with $3.39 of your hard-earned savings. If not, it’s best to pass it up.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Hill Street Blues

The Drop: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company; $27.99; 416 pages)

“It was a city where not enough people cared about making it a better and safe place to live.”

Michael Connelly, author of the tremendously successful Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Reversal, The Fifth Witness) and Harry Bosch novels, returns with what is likely his strongest tale yet.   The Drop stands for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Deferred Retirement Options Plan, which allows police officers and detectives to stay on as retired annuitants working past their normal scheduled retirement dates.   As we join the story, Bosch is bored, underworked, underappreciated and counting the months until the day of his departure from the Hall of Justice.

“Two days ago he didn’t think he could leg out the last thirty-one months of his career.   Now he wanted the full five years.”

Then, suddenly, Bosch is given not one, but two major cases to solve.   One assignment comes to him directly from the police chief.   Without explanation, a powerful city councilman who is a foe of the LAPD in general – and a long-time enemy of Detective Bosch – requests Harry’s services in resolving the death of his son.   The son’s death appears, at first blush, to be a suicide but is it something more?   And will the powers that be in the city permit Bosch to pull the strings even if it unravels a major political power broking scandal?

The second matter is a cold case investigation into a murderer, seemingly lost somewhere in southern California, who may be a rival to Ted Bundy as a dangerous serial killer.   While spending virtually every minute of the first 48 hours cracking the first case, Bosch and his partner also find and create the time to solve the mystery of the second.

Boomers will identify with Bosch, who is conflicted over whether he should remain on the job, retire immediately or stay on longer.   It will be familiar territory for some mature readers.   As Harry says to his 15-year-old wise, prospective-detective daughter, “I’ve been chasing my tail all week…  and you know what?   I think you were right.   You called it at the start and I didn’t.   I must be getting old.”

In this 22nd novel from Connelly, we find a protagonist who has never seemed more likable, more flawed and more human.   This is about as good as it gets when it comes to fiction set in the City of Angels.   And don’t just take my word for it:

Thank God for Michael Connelly…  (He) retains his journalistic gifts; his eye for detail is spot on…  his 22 novels form an indispensable, compelling chronicle of L.A.”   Los Angeles Times

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Drop will be released on November 28, 2011, and will also be available in e-reader form (Kindle Edition and Nook Book), and as an unabridged audiobook on CDs.   “Connelly is a master of building suspense.”   The Wall Street Journal

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Sail On Silver Girl

Brooklyn Story: A Novel by Suzanne Corso (Gallery Books; $23.99; 336 pages)

Suzanne Corso’s Brooklyn Story is described on the back cover as being a true-to-life novel, which is something of an understatement, considering the acknowledgements open by stating, “The one thing that I know is that I am a survivor and was extremely determined to have my story told.”

This admission is good because without it, some of the storytelling would be confusing.   The story is told in a very even and objective manner, but in the first person.   The reader is inclined to believe this to be a personal tale.   But when the detached narrative continues, it becomes difficult to understand how the main character, Samantha Bonti, can continue to be so naive as to follow along with her mobster boyfriend, Tony Kroon, seemingly oblivious to the obvious.   The admission that the story is largely, if not entirely autobiographical, makes it easier to accept the human frailty associated with this young girl’s mistakes.

In the book Bonti grows up in Brooklyn and dreams of being a writer and crossing the Red Sea, or, in this case, the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and an alternate lifestyle – one free of the curse of abusive males, crime and cyclical poverty.   The life she dreams of differs radically from that of her mother, who, though pregnant young, poor, and addle-minded from years of drug and alcohol abuse, deeply wishes for her daughter to avoid these traps, despite her inability to adequately communicate that to her.

When Bonti falls under Kroon’s spell, thanks to her best friend Janice’s efforts to connect the two, Bonti’s life begins to unravel.   Miraculoulsy, she narrowly escapes her mother’s fate.

Bonti’s grandmother is a kind soul who takes up residence with the two, both to take care of her daughter and, at the same time, shield her grandmother from her.

There are two redeeming male characters in the book, Samantha’s teacher, Mr. Wainright, who encourages Samantha in her writing endeavors, and Father Rinaldi.   Both see the good in Samantha and encourage her to pursue a more enlightened path.   Without either, she may have not made it beyond her circumstances.   If she frustrated them as much as she frustrates the reader with her behavior. then they perhaps both should be up for sainthood, because Samantha’s escape is a near miracle.   How desperate must one be to ask a priest for money for an abortion?

At least one passage serves more to provoke the reader or appeal to a certain readership than to actually advance the core themes of the story, but these are things that one must accept when digesting a story that is, for the most part enjoyable, though it did not elicit in this reviewer the emotional reaction that the author was likely shooting for.

Recommended.  

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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