Tag Archives: St. Martin’s Press

Get Your Danish On!

America the Anxious: How the Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks by Ruth Whippman (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 247 pages)

america the anxious

Happiness is so individualized and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – of circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences, and personality quirks – that anything averaged over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.

Is it possible for a British writer and documentary filmmaker to capture the underlying cause of what seems to be a pervasive sense of anxiety in the United States of America?  Ruth Whippman is transplanted to Berkeley, California when her husband takes a job across the pond.  She brings with her the typical negative/sarcastic attitude acquired in her homeland. (“Cynicism is the British shtick, our knee-jerk starting point.”)

This slender gray volume appears to be a survey of what makes American anxious; however, it segues into a memoir of the author’s search for happiness in the Golden State.  Ms. Whipmann begins her residency with her husband and one toddler and adds another child along the way.  The local experiences she describes vary from playground interactions with other moms and kiddies to encounters with her apartment neighbors.

To her credit, Whippman travels to other regions of this anxious nation to gather a broader view of her topic.  The seemingly content and happy Mormons in Utah are the focus of her fieldwork.  She also delves into academia, parenting and workplace standards of contentment.

The accolades on the book jacket extolling the author’s wit and hilarious humor are relatively accurate, if exaggerated.  Although America the Anxious does have its share of laughs and comic relief, the quote above left this reviewer with a sense of being let down.  We may be portrayed as a nation of Nervous Nellies but not everyone is pursuing happiness with a negative result.

This may  have made for a fascinating inflight article.  As a book, it’s overly padded with one person’s viewpoints, anecdotes, and opinions. Therefore, it is recommended only for those with the preexisting view that the U.S. is a nation of sad, miserable people.

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking (William Morrow, $19.99, 221 pages)

little book of hygge

Right off, readers intent on quality of life improvement might recognize a physical similarity between The Little Book of Hygge and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo.  All three books measure slightly over 5″ x 7″ and their covers are coated in that smooth durable finish meant for ease in handling without wear and tear.  After all, if one is planning to absorb and implement the wisdom within its covers, a book must be portable and sturdy.

little book hygge all year around

The lovely illustrations generously sprinkled among the words of encouragement written by Meik Wiking are immediately recognizable as Scandinavian.  Just as Ms. Kondo’s cute and dainty illustrations are very much in keeping with the modern Japanese style of Hello Kitty.  While Ms. Kondo’s are neat and tidy primers on folding and storing one’s possessions, Mr. Wiking’s contain ample clues to the elements of Hygge that the Danes enjoy year round.  Clothing, candles, yummy recipes, fireplaces and, did I mention candles?

little book hygge definitionAuthor Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute located in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Readers may not be aware of the fact that Denmark is considered one of the happiest nations in the world.  (More than Disneyland?  – Ed.) Ample graphs and charts comparing Denmark to other nations establish this fact along with a more than sufficient amount of text explaining this phenomenon.

What secrets are lurking in this volume?  Well, maybe not exactly secrets so much as a comprehensive examination of the definition of Hygge that is parsed out into human, environmental and psychological elements.  These elements, when combined, can provide the comfort and even a sense of well being that each of us truly needs in the current world.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

i-liked-my-life-amazon

I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

i-liked-my-life-back

Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New Morning

“So happy just to see you smile/Underneath this sky of blue/On this new morning, new morning/On this new morning with you.” – Bob Dylan

It's Nice Outside amazon

Honest, Uplifting, Revealing… Excellent.

Its. Nice. Outside.: A Novel by Jim Kokoris (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 320 pages)

Jim Kokoris’ 2002 novel, The Rich Part of Life, which has been published in 15 different languages, earned the Friends of American Writers Award for Best First Novel. I have not read that book, but I plan to do so now. Having just ripped through his latest, Its. Nice. Outside., it’s easy to see why Rich was so highly acclaimed.

Its. Nice. Outside. is the tale of many things, “Family, Family, Family, USA,” among them (one must read the book to understand this reference). But the truth is, in today’s world, how does one even begin to imagine a Leave It to Beaver perfect family? How does one define love? How do young adults ever actually leave the nest or get their feet under them? How does one forgive? Who does one blame when one has run out of people to blame?

How do adults move past broken dreams? Does anyone ever really know how and when it’s time to let go? And how does one, in the midst of the chaos that has now become a normalized reality, manage to simultaneously raise a disabled child?

When John Nichols embarks on a cross-country journey with his adult autistic child, Ethan, to attend his adult daughter Karen’s wedding; and when he joins up with celebrity daughter, Mindy; and when he finally encounters his ex-wife, Mary, things have deteriorated so much in the present that the past begins to matter much less. To hold grudges, to forgive, to have the courage to move on, to have the courage to let it go… Its. Nice. Outside. is a story of love and humanity, with these five characters the vessels through which important themes are channeled. Yet they are real enough to be your neighbors.

Any flaw in the telling is so minor that it does not merit referencing.

books Its Nice Outside 1

After many swimming pools, potty stops, Cracker Barrels, hotel rooms, and pickles, the reader who is continuously compelled to turn to the next page, regrettably comes to the end of this great novel. The genius of it is that Kokoris manages to accomplish this in 308 pages. This is indicative of someone who knows how to both write a very, very good story and provoke an honest look in the mirror.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Pop Fly

Sacrifice Fly A Mystery

Sacrifice Fly: A Mystery by Tim O’Mara (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 320 pages)

“Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part
Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put…” Bob Dylan, “I and I”

O’Mara Connects with Sacrifice Fly

Tim O’Mara’s debut novel Sacrifice Fly is one of the better mystery novels this reviewer has read in recent years.

Raymond Donne is a Brooklyn school teacher and former cop who becomes entangled in the disappearance of one of this students, Frankie Rivas, and his sister when their father is murdered. Donne, whose police career ended due to a freak injury, can’t resist his innate urges to play detective when he is disappointed with the actions of the men in blue. Donne gets in over his head, making for enough drama that his uncle, the chief of detectives, has to get involved to help bail him out.

The best aspect of the novel is the consistency of storytelling and voice from start to finish, which is not easy to pull off. The only blip here is the incident when Donne is on a date at a police gathering and lets some of his blue machismo surface unnecessarily. This is out of character for him and does not seem to fit.

Frankie is billed as a baseball phenom whose “way out” of the neighborhood is a scholarship to a local private high school baseball power that Donne helped him secure. However, this does not actually have much to do with the story, so any reader expecting a story focusing on baseball will likely be let down.

Sacrifice Fly back cover

The story is told without pretense and it works. The reader gets a happy ending, though Donne himself is left dangling with the loose ends of his relationships and physical rehabilitation still in limbo, which screams for a sequel.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Tim O’Mara’s novels have only been released in hardback and Kindle and Nook Book editions, not in trade paperback versions.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Life in a Minor Key

Saving Grace (Amazon)

Saving Grace: A Novel by Jane Green (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 320 pages)

Take one bratty American husband and pair him with an English wife who walks on eggshells. Next, stir in a sense of impending doom. Jane Green, a prolific author (Tempting Fate: A Novel), casts an easily believable couple in this, her 16th novel. As one who has, in a past marriage, known the atmosphere in which Grace Chapman lives, this reviewer was initially hesitant to read through the novel.

The slightly off-kilter telling builds a sense of gloom and has a hint of the Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. Ted Chapman, an aging author, takes on a new assistant named Beth. Beth quickly takes over the household and pretty much shoves wife Grace to the side.

By page 150, there is a strong question bound to pop up in the reader’s mind, “Is this entertainment?” If not, it might drag the reader into a past best forgotten. As it is, the tale has many lessons to teach, the best of them is to take care of yourself! Being who you are is a reward!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The Good Boy (nook book)

The Good Boy: A Novel by Theresa Schwegel (St. Martin’s Press, $15.99, 368 pages)

“And they tell me you are crooked and I answer; Yes it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.” Chicago, Carl Sandburg

A Solid Writer Delivers an Average Book

The Good Boy is Theresa Schwegel’s fifth novel. The Chicago native won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel for Officer Down. In her latest, Officer Pete Murphy and his partner, the dog Butchie, get caught up in a traffic stop gone bad that involves bad people with whom he has a not-so-pleasant past. This leads to a police cover up, revelations of an alleged affair between Pete and a judge he was assigned to protect during an ugly trial, and a civil suit against him.

Pete’s strained marriage and problem child daughter, McKenna, take center stage soon enough, and before one can say, “Freeze,” Joel – Pete’s young son, takes Butchie on an escapade related to McKenna’s shenanigans. This compulsive act takes him through virtually every Chicago neighborhood as he becomes mired in the middle of a revenge plot against Pete.

It seems that most contemporary novels requite some form of family dysfunction and troubled children, so that formulaic prerequisite aside, the writing is pretty good. However, despite being well constructed, the plot fails to be compelling enough to make this more than a run-of-the-mill cop story. This being said, readers who favor stories of this genre will likely find it to be an enjoyable read.

Longtime fans of author Schwegel – used to reading her award winning caliber books may, however, be disappointed in this C-level release.

Recommended, for some.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Not to Touch the Earth

Massacre Pond (nook book)

Massacre Pond: A Novel (Mike Bowditch Series #4) by Paul Doiron (St. Martin’s Press, $15.99, 336 pages)

Paul Doiron’s fourth novel Massacre Pond continues the Mike Bowditch saga. Bowditch is a game warden in Maine who struggles with his internal demons mostly attributed to his rebel father, a poacher and key figure in the introduction to the series in Doiron’s debut novel, The Poacher’s Son.

This reviewer had not read any of the author’s previous books. Upon researching his preceding works, it became clear that readers’ thoughts on them are decidedly mixed. This book is of fine quality, meaning that either earlier commentaries are off base or Doiron has matured into being a solid storyteller.

In Massacre Pond, Bowditch is called to investigate the slaughter of seven moose on private property, which is intended to become a wildlife sanctuary in the midst of a logging community. The idea of a sanctuary angers many natives, as outsider and conservationist Elizabeth Moore is perceived as an arrogant do-gooder throwing her money around at the expense of jobs for the locals. Owners of the local mill are less than thrilled with Moore’s presence.

A dull but good-hearted caretaker of the Morse property, Billy Cronk, is central to the initial events and eventual climax of the story – entangled in a web of power and money, although his motives are as pure as any of the book’s myriad of characters.

Bowditch is somewhat self-absorbed but is genuine enough to be likable. And this is part of the attraction of the story. The characters are all just complicated enough to provide a touch of reality to the tale; part of a genre in which plot is typically everything and depth and complexity of characters is provided short shrift.

Bowditch appears to be more of a cop than a game warden. If there are lines of division in real life, they are not evident in the telling of this story. The ending is an obvious – bordering on cheesy, lead-in to the next book in the series. However, overall, this novel, in and of itself, is a solid one. Doiron’s writing and storytelling surpass many similar attempts at crime/suspense/mystery/intrigue. So, without respect to what may have led up to this novel or what may come next, Massacre Pond is worth the read.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Mr. Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

You can read a review of Trespasser: A Novel by Paul Doiron here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/shes-gone/

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized