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The Unforgiven

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

“Grant had never forgiven her for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago…”

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C., Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry him; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their twin toddlers.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.   Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who’s home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is popular fiction wrapped in the guises of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with  Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her married, pregnant daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in stories such as this one.   After another set of implausible events (the second of two sets, if you’re counting), Annabelle has moved to New York City to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will either seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a stretch.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is sometimes plodding by comparison and the time shifts are awkward and distracting.   There may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This is the third of three reviews of The Stuff That Never Happened posted on this site.   The novel was well recommended by Kelly Monson, and highly recommended by Kimberly Caldwell.

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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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Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Stuff That Never Happened

The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

If you’ve ever caught a glimpse of a former lover and let your mind travel down the “what if” path, however briefly, you’ll enjoy “The Stuff That Never Happened.”   It’s the debut novel by Maddie Dawson, who captures the silent desperation of pinning for the excitement of the “bad boy” who got away when all of your friends think the good guy you married is God’s gift to wives.

Annabelle McKay, at 46, is well aware that she is the envy of the faculty spouses at the New Hampshire college where her husband is a big-wheel professor.   Grant is solid and dependable.   He’s not the type of husband who would leave her for a younger woman just as her upper arms are starting to go flabby and she and Grant are losing their biggest common denominator – their two kids.   Besides, there’s still enough of a spark in their marriage that they schedule sex every week on the morning he doesn’t have an early class to teach.   But Annabelle has never squelched the memories of the passionate affair she had 26 years ago that left wounds too deep to speak about.   It’s that vow of silence between Annabelle and Grant that is the fat finger on Annabelle’s contentment scale.   Dawson lets Annabelle tell her own story, and she does so in a voice that draws you in like a new friend who’s just starting to open up and confide.

Therein lies the real treat of this novel.   Annabelle tells her life in two parallel story lines, the one that takes place in 2005, the present; and the one that set her on her present course in 1977.   You watch the mature Annabelle wrestle with her emotions and her choices when she unexpectedly meets her old lover at a juncture when life’s possibilities seem to be opening up again.   You see Annabelle at 20 as she is struggling to emerge from a dysfunctional family and chart her own course — with very little perspective and few emotional navigation aids.

Woven together, the stories are compelling in the way that celebrity divorces are:  The central problem is as old as the human race, and the details are riveting as much for what they divulge about a couple’s private life as for the mirror they hold up to one’s own life.   “The Stuff That Never Happened” will be the book you pass to a friend and say, “Let me know when you’ve read this.   I want to know what you would have done.”

Dawson’s characters are insightfully drawn and convincingly flawed.   Even the characters that only make cameo appearances are fully formed.   Padgett, the grad-student trophy wife of Clark, a colleague of Grant’s, texts through the couple’s getting-to-know-you dinner at a restaurant.   And when Clark announces that he’s taking a sabbatical so he and Padgett can travel the world, Dawson shows us his gum-revealing, fool-in-love grin, and says, “He puts his big bald forehead onto her unlined one, like a mind meld you see on Star Trek.”   With just a few sentences, Dawson sketches a guy who’s very much like a guy you know at work and a woman one-third his age whose lack of apparent charm is a throwback to the very serious, Gloria Steinem wanna-be of the early seventies, only Padgett’s social consciousness is directed at saving the environment, not womankind.

Maybe you can tell:  I thought this was a great read.   It’s an astute people-watcher’s take on a timeless conundrum.   It would make a great beach read.   But if you take it on vacation, load up on sun screen.   You’re not going to want to put it down.

By Kimberly C. Steffen, a writer and editor who lives in Connecticut.   This is a “second look” review.

 

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Upside Down

The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C, Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry Grant; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their toddler twins.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.  Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who is home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is chick lit (popular fiction) disguised in the trappings of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly has died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her  pregnant, married daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in novels such as this one.   After another set of implausible events, Annabelle has moved to the city to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a status she has not earned.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is occasionally plodding by comparison and the time shifts are distracting.   There also may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff. 

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Stuff That Never Happened was released on August 3, 2010.

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Over Under Sideways Down

Fragile: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

“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 decide 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 all their separate lives were twisted and tangled, growing over and around one another…  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 fates 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.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Fragile was released on August 3, 2010.

 

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A Simple Question

A Simple Question, Not So Easily Answered by Joseph Arellano

One seemingly easy question facing a book reviewer is – When should a book review be published?   Yet the answer varies greatly – and surprisingly – in the publishing industry.   I say surprisingly because I once wrote music reviews for a college newspaper.   At that time, if one asked when a record album review should be published, the answer would be “any time is fine.”   Record companies did not seem to care whether their albums were reviewed prior to release, on the date of release or even days, weeks or months later.   (Today you can find books with recent reviews of record albums that were released decades ago.)

Major publishers have so many different policies on book reviews that it’s a wonder they’ve been able to agree on an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).   One publisher wants no reviews posted prior to the date of release because, in their view, people get angry if they read about a new release and can’t find it at their local Barnes and Noble or favorite independent bookseller.   Another says a review is OK if it is posted one week or less before the release date.   Several publishing houses encourage book reviewers to post their reviews within the first one or two weeks following the book’s release.

If this isn’t confusing enough, a few publishers indicate that they do not embargo reviews.   In other words, if a reviewer has a galley or advance review copy (ARC) of a future release in his/her hands and wants to write about it now, that’s fine.

There’s similar confusion over posting pre-release excerpts; so-called sneak peeks.   Some publishers won’t allow them.   Some will allow them if the reviewer requests permission, and will then respond with specifics as to when the excerpt can be posted online or in print.   Ironically, some of the publishers who do not allow the posting of pre-release excerpts themselves post them on their websites or on online sites which cater to librarians and booksellers!

Confusing, huh?   You bet…

Then we have the policies of book review publications to which reviewers like me submit reviews.   Some want only reviews that they’ve received prior to the book’s release date so that they can post on the date of release.   Some review only new releases (often in hardbound form) but not the subsequent popular re-releases in trade paperback form.   Some, like this publication, review new releases and those re-releases missed the first time around.   It all means that a book reviewer needs something akin to a flow chart to track which policy applies to which publisher, and which policy applies to which publication.   Oh, my!

Why do things have to be so confusing?   I have no idea, except that if a publishing company foots the bill – and assumes all the risks of failure – it is fair to assume that the publisher can call the shots.   However, if I ran a publishing house – let’s call it Brown Cat Books for the purpose of illustration – I would have no problem with reviews of BCB releases running at any time.   Why?   Because from everything I’ve read, publishers must rely on the sale of back catalog books to keep them in business.

Think about high school and college students, and boomers who walk into a Barnes & Noble or community bookstore these days.   How many of them would you guess are buying a book that was released more than a year or two ago?   Perhaps not half of them, but it’s probably a higher number than your first guess.

Despite my view, one source has written that the expiration date for buzz to be generated on a new book is its release date.   In this source’s view, if people are not talking about it – and reading about it – on the first day it is sold, it is not likely to become a best seller; which translates into dead on arrival.   Yes, of course, there are and have been spectacular exceptions to this “rule” – two examples being The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones.   These are popular fiction releases that took months and years to become overnight best sellers.

This reviewer simply wonders sometimes why things are as they are in the publishing trade, but then I can’t complain.   I just need to remember to continuously update my Publishers and Publications Review Policies flow chart.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Written for “The Critical Eye” column.

Pictured:  The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson, which will be released by Shaye Areheart Books on August 3, 2010.

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