Tag Archives: Unbridled Books

My Old School

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books, $24.95, 288 pages)

The Lola Quartet, the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel (The Singer’s Gun and Last Night in Montreal) reads like an unsettling dream, sliding between present and past in the lives of a group of high school acquaintances.   The title refers to the jazz quartet in which four of the characters played in high school — they’d named it after a German film they liked.   Playing jazz from the back of a pickup truck one night at the end of senior year is a scene revisited with longing throughout the novel, as it represents the end of their innocence or the beginning of their futures, when all things seemed possible.

The classmates scatter the moment they graduate but remain connected by bad choices, honorable impulses, and blood.   To say they are friends would stretch the definition of the word, but perhaps that is appropriate in the era of Facebook, an age that the author paints in shades of alienation.

Although several characters tell their versions of their roles in the incidents that connect them, the primary narrator is Gavin Sasaki, who achieves the most career success in the decade after high school – before he almost inexplicably sabotages himself.   He’s a reporter who lies, a discordance that underscores the sense of unease and hopelessness that pervades the novel.   On one level, The Lola Quartet presents a mystery as Gavin searches for a child he thinks may be his.   On another level, it seems like a photo printed in a darkroom: the image that slowly forms on the page is that of a generation hungry for connection and mired in hopelessness.  It’s a page-turner and a thought-provoker.

Highly recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Lola Quartet was released on May 1, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

This is a review of The Singer’s Gun: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/two-steps/

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel.

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Coming Attractions (2012)

Here’s a sampling of new and upcoming books that might well wind up on the to-be-read stack.

The Bungalow: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; December 27, 2011)

We loved The Violets of March by Sarah Jio and thought it was one of the best debut novels of 2011.   Now Jio returns with a quite different type of story set in Bora Bora during World War II.   Wrote reader Laura Bolin on Amazon: “The Bungalow was an old black and white movie straight out of my grandparent’s generation.   I was swept away by Jio’s vivid descriptions and I loved every minute of it.”

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell; January 3, 2012)

An entertaining story about an almost-retired counselor who tries to help a group of four women – all of whom have serious pending matters with the legal system – manage their anger issues in court-ordered group counseling sessions.   The women will have to graduate from the group in order to return  to their normal lives.   Oh, and they don’t like each other at all – which means that the counselor is going to have to take some drastic (and perhaps even professionally unethical) actions in order to get them to a kinder and gentler place.

Gun Games: A Novel by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow; January 3, 2012)

Faye Kellerman once again showcases Peter Decker of the Los Angeles Police Department and Rina Lazarus, likely the most popular husband and wife team in modern crime fiction.   A series of shocking adolescent suicides at an elite L. A. private school is at the heart of this thriller.   As if this isn’t enough, there’s  also the fact that Decker and Lazarus have brought a very troubled teenager into their home: Gabriel Whitman, the son of a psychopath.

The Confession: A Novel by Charles Todd (Wm. Morrow; January 12, 2012)

An historical crime novel, continuing Charles Todd’s World War I veteran, and yet still highly effective Scotland Yard Inspector, Ian Rutledge.   Rutledge struggles with a startling and dangerous case that reaches far back into the past when a false confession by a man who was not who he claimed to be resulted in a brutal murder.

Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir by Doron Weber (Simon & Schuster; February 7, 2012)

Not to be confused with Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds, this is a moving memoir about a boy born with a defective heart – located on the right side of his chest – who weathers major heart surgeries before being hit with a highly unique, perhaps untreatable disease.   Those who years ago read Death Be Not Proud may be drawn to this account.

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (Wm. Morrow; February 7, 2012)

Kate’s an ambitious – if self-damaging – reporter who goes undercover.   She enters a drug and alcohol rehab clinic to find out what’s happening with the popular and troubled young actress Amber Shepard.   “Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way…”

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; May 15, 2012)

We gave a highly recommended rating to Mandel’s 2010 novel The Singer’s Gun, which was as gutsy as it was unique and engaging.   Her third novel examines “questions of identity, the deep pull of family, the difficulties of being the person one wants to be, the un-reliability of memory, and the unforeseen ways a small and innocent action can have disastrous consequences.”   It’s bound to be worth the price of admission.

Joseph Arellano

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Out of Control

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 272 pages)

Writer Kevin Desinger found a great setup for his debut novel.   Jim Sandusky, a good citizen and wine steward, is home one evening with his wife in a fine, quiet neighborhood when their peace is disturbed.   Jim looks out the second-story window to observe two men in the process of stealing his Toyota Camry.   Jim initially plans to go outside to write down the vehicle license number of the truck that the thieves have arrived in, but once outside he impulsively changes his mind and steals the truck….  Such is the effect of adrenaline on a once innocent man.

That’s right, our good citizen breaks the law before the two thieves get the opportunity to do so themselves; however, as one might expect, this is not the end of his problems, it’s merely the beginning as he now must deal with two violent criminal brothers (Larry and Wade Hood) and law enforcement.

It’s a great premise and starting point – but the execution doesn’t match up with the inherent possibilities.   Firstly, our good citizen Jim is a bit too calm – no make that far too calm – in the face of danger.   Even Sgt. Rainey, the police officer assigned to this strange case tells him that he’s too controlled in the midst of unforeseen events.   As a result, we never feel any actual fear for Jim’s safety, which takes a lot of the air out of this big balloon.

Secondly, there are some strange inconsistencies in the telling.   For example, Jim’s first encounter with the rotten Hood brothers occurs when he goes out to the street in front of his home in an attempt to write down a license plate number.   Yet, in the second half of the story, when he’s being staked out by someone who parks in front of his home each night in a clunker of a Mazda, Jim never thinks to write down the creep’s plate number.   This is even stranger when we remember that we’ve been told, earlier in the tale, that Jim has a pair of bird watching binoculars downstairs in the kitchen.   (This is the type of script inconsistency that’s destructive if left un-caught in the filming of a movie.)

We also see that Jim, who has never had any prior contact with those who live outside of the boundaries of the law, is pretty shrewd – as even Sgt. Rainey will be forced to admit – as he seeks to protect himself and his wife from the literal Hoods.   Yet Mr. Desinger goes to great pains to paint Jim as a foggy-headed protagonist (“…I would grope along blindingly until I simply disappeared into the fog.   I spent the day wandering through mental corridors in the fog.”), a man who really doesn’t know what he’s doing.   So which Jim Sandusky is the real Jim?

Another flaw has to do with the language.   Early on in the telling, Mr. Desinger’s style is awkward (it subsequently calms dawn) and the character dialogues never seem quite real.   Occasionally sentences feel as if they have words missing:  “…the cellar was where I kept the treasures that were no longer in distribution.   The cellar bottle was to represent what I thought the other wines were aiming for, the essence of the grape of interest.”   I’ve read the latter sentence at least 10 times now, and I still don’t know what meaning is supposed to be conveyed by it.

Truth be told, this is an engaging story but it just didn’t feel quite real enough.   The Descent of Man is like an almost great song played not very well.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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Back in Black

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $24.95; 272 pages)

The Descent of Man explores an interesting premise:  In the face of fear, can humans actually de-evolve into their basest nature creating a world where self-preservation overtakes reason and higher-order thinking?

The book opens when the main character, Jim, and his wife, Marla, hear two car thieves attempting to steal their car in the wee hours of the morning.   Jim’ s subsequent decision on how to act, and then an impulsive, unplanned act, come together instantly to set off a chain of events that involve a lie, which, of course, leads to subsequent lies and more complications before the story finally resolves itself.

The tale starts off well.   While the theft of a car may lead one to initially assume that the book will be an action/suspense story, a great deal of the early portion of the book is told from a psychological, philosophical point of view through the inner workings of the minds of the main characters.   This is where the book works best.

As the story unfolds, a promising concept begins to unravel.   It is possible the author tried to do too much at once.   For a while, the reader may want this to be a thriller, with humans hunting down other humans, car chases, accidents, and scenes that take place in the seediest part of town.   Or, they may like the parts that stick to the introduction and are a psychological drama about tormented and tortured souls.   Or, they may like the scenes that touch on the relationship between Jim and Marla and want more of the “love story”, for lack of a better term.   But the reader gets a little bit of each and not enough of any of them to be truly satisfied.

It is hard to know what to make of the detective in the story.   Does he want to help Jim, or is he setting Jim up?   Clearly, he does not trust Jim, yet at the end, they seem to form an interesting, through unrealistic bond.   One painful incident from the couple’s past is introduced, but does not do much to advance the story or give hints as to the current nature of their relationship.   Perhaps, in fact, the most unsatisfying parts of the story are those that focus on Jim and Marla.   Jim is supposedly desperately in love with her, and she wants badly to reconcile after events cause them to be apart for a while.   But most of this picks up about halfway through, when the reader believes the story is headed in a different direction.   There just isn’t enough to them to care very much about their relationship.   The crimes, lies and curiosity about who might get caught, killed, or whatever, is much more intriguing.

There are some other problems from a plausibility standpoint, like when Jim buys a gun from a hooker he hardly knows during one of his insomniac-based ventures into the town’s red light district.

In this reviewer’s opinion, author Kevin Desinger has promise, but the book falls a bit short despite some strong passages that peak the reader’s interest.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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Coming Up Next…

A preview-review of The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger.

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Two Steps

The Singer’s Gun: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; $14.95; 304 pages)

“Most things you have to do in life are at least a little bit questionable.”   Emily St. John Mandel

“To live outside the law you must be honest.”   Bob Dylan

The Singer’s Gun is a recklessly entertaining book from the unique novelist Emily St. John Mandel (Last Night in Montreal).   Mandel’s writing style is so unique that it’s sui generis – not classifiable.   If Mandel had been a musician, she might have been Harry Nilsson or, perhaps, Joni Mitchell.   Like those two, Mandel has the guts of a cat burglar; she’s unbridled, not hemmed in by other’s boundaries or rules.   Reading Mandel is quite a fun ride especially because, as one book store owner stated, “She doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of life.”

The Singer’s Gun is the story of Anton, a man born into a New York City-based family that lives in the grey and questionable areas of life.   Anton’s parents sell stolen architectural goods (Walker Architectural Salvage) and his female cousin Aria sells fake passports, green cards and other things of which Anton desires not to know the details.   Anton, of course, has a bit of the thief’s blood in him so he uses false pretenses to secure a copy of a diploma from his supposed alma mater, Harvard.   The only problem is that Anton graduated high school, not college.

After Anton’s long-term engagement to his fiancée results in a very, very short-term marriage (it’s shorter than the honeymoon trip), and he has trouble as work, he’s tempted to take a “last job” offer from Aria.   But then the plot, the story line, of The Singer’s Gun is not of great import – it’s a pretense to let Mandel perform her magic…  Here is an example, a paragraph, from this break through novel:

Anton met a cellist at a party that year, a spectacularly talented girl who didn’t know he’d never been to Harvard, and he proposed to her eight months later.   Sophie and the job together formed the foundation of  his new life; between the straight clean lines of a Manhattan tower he rose up through the ranks (and to the 11th floor), from junior researcher to VP of a research division.   His dedication to the company was mentioned in his performance reviews.   He directed his team and came home every night to a woman he loved in an apartment filled with music in his favorite neighborhood, until it all came apart at once and he found himself (on the 4th floor) lying naked next to his former secretary in the summer heat.

Yes, the whole book is like this which means you, the reader, won’t dare to presume what will happen next.   Let’s just say that in the end Anton is forced to make a decision between his old life and his old family, and a new life and a new family.   His choice will also involve a decision to either live outside of the law or within its confines.

At the conclusion of The Singer’s Gun, the reader finds that Anton has determined exactly who he is, and how he must live.   It’s, yes, a revelation at the conclusion of another modern morality tale.   Still, in Singer’s Gun the story isn’t half as important as the telling, and in the hands of Mandel the rocking and rolling never stops!   Whew!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Singer’s Gun will be released in trade paper form on April 19, 2011.


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Information Wars

A Geography of Secrets: A Novel by Frederick Reuss (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 288 pages)

“Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.”

A lush, other-worldly feel permeates this philosophical novel based in Washington, D.C.   Author Frederick Reuss presents two tales that portray the human toll paid by the families of those who work in the shadows where espionage is practiced.   The first-person narrator of the initial tale is the adult son of a recently deceased former CIA operative.   The reader is not advised of the son’s name although everyone else in the chapters devoted to him are clearly named and fully developed as characters.  

The son is an old-school style cartographer who experiences life through the methodology of his work.   He engages physically with the area he is mapping in order to infuse the end product with authenticity.   The son and his mother are easily recognizable as collateral damage created by his father’s activities in the Foreign Service.   The mother was jettisoned from her marriage and replaced by other women while the son is left with the sense of never really knowing who his father was.

The second tale is told in the third-person.   The primary character is a technical wizard/spy named Noel Leonard who works for a top-secret government agency.   Noel gathers information about the activities of the enemy de jour using satellite technology and super sensitive spy cameras.   This information is used to plot bombing attacks.   His only passion in life is golf and he excels at it, primarily because he is an expert at judging the trajectory of objects.   Noel’s wife and daughter are kept in the dark about just what he does at the office which creates difficulties for all of them.

Each of the characters is seeking to throw light on the secrets that have made a huge impact on their lives.   Their searches take them to Switzerland, the son for his father’s funeral and Noel for an information-sharing conference.   Noel longs to blurt out the truth of his profession in order to clear the air and connect with his family.   The irony was not lost on this reviewer that it is in Switzerland, a neutral country, that they find key elements of their quest.

Both of the men convey a sense of invisibleness, a holding back, rather than surging forward.   Neither of them seeks out people or participates in group activities.   They are observers – watchers – rather than front line participants in life.   Their searches for connectedness to family and place are often derailed by purposeful withdrawal.   The sense of their invisibleness is heightened by the way they recede to the edges of the action in life.   The son and Noel are infused with a strong sense of distrust, or maybe anxiety about sharing their innermost selves with others.   The two men repeatedly approach and dance away from the secondary characters.

Author Reuss allows his tales to meander rather than dragging the reader along on a chase.   He is extremely skillful at describing the essence of Washington D.C. which is full of historic meaning, vast institutions and seats of power.   It is there that people become ants swallowed up by the workings of government.

These are unique and well drawn tales.   Thought provoking.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Opening Notes

An Unfinished Score by Elise Blackwell will be released by Unbridled Books on April 6, 2010.   Here is how the novel opens:

She hears the words on the radio.   It is the radio that announces her lover’s death.   His is not a household name, not in most households, but he happens to be the most famous person on the plane that went down.   The plane’s wreckage, strewn across the Indiana farmland, is being examined for clues.   Crews search for the voice recorder, the black box that holds the secret of two hundred  seventy-one deaths.   Two hundred seventy, plus one.

Suzanne’s rib cage shudders – a piano whose keys are struck all at once – yet does not cry.   She does not cry, but only closes her eyes and presses her palms flat on the cool counter.   None of the facts of Alex’s life suggests that it ends in a soybean field.

At the dining room table, playing a board game and separated from her by the counter on which she works, sit the other members of her household, a household in which Alex’s name at least rings a bell.   Her husband’s dice clack against the wood; her best friend sighs as her game piece is sent back to start; Adele’s hands clap three times…

Ben, who has been listening to the broadcast, who has heard the honey-voiced announcement says from the table, “That’s sad.   Don’t we have a couple of his recordings?”

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Break On Through

“Most things you have to do in life are at least a little bit questionable.”   Emily St. John Mandel

“To live outside the law you must be honest.”   Bob Dylan

The Singer’s Gun is a recklessly entertaining book from the unique novelist Emily St. John Mandel (Last Night in Montreal).   Mandel’s writing style is so unique that it’s sui generis – not classifiable.   If Mandel had been a musician, she might have been Harry Nilsson or, perhaps, Joni Mitchell.   Like those two, Mandel has the guts of a cat burglar; she’s unbridled, not hemmed in by other’s boundaries or rules.   Reading Mandel is quite a fun ride especially because, as one book store owner stated, “She doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of life.”

The Singer’s Gun is the story of Anton, a man born into a New York City-based family that lives in the grey and questionable areas of life.   Anton’s parents sell stolen architectural goods (Waker Architectural Salvage) and his female cousin Aria sells fake passports, green cards and other things of which Anton desires not to know the details.   Anton, of course, has a bit of the thief’s blood in him so he uses false pretenses to secure a copy of a diploma from his supposed alma mater, Harvard.   The only problem is that Anton only graduated high school, not college.

After Anton’s long-term engagement to his fiancée results in a very, very short-term marriage (it’s shorter than the honeymoon trip), and he has trouble at work, he’s tempted to take a “last job” offer from Aria.   But then the plot, the story line, of The Singer’s Gun is not of great import – it’s a pretense to let Mandel perform her magic…  Here is an example, a paragraph, from this break through novel:

Anton met a cellist at a party that year, a spectacularly talented girl who didn’t know he’d never been to Harvard, and he proposed to her eight months later.   Sophie and the job together formed the foundation of his new life; between the straight clean lines of a Manhattan tower he rose up through the ranks (and to the 11th floor), from junior researcher to VP of a research division.   His dedication to the company was mentioned in his performance reviews.   He directed his team and came home every night to a woman he loved in an apartment filled with music in his favorite neighborhood, until it all came apart at once and he found himself (on the 4th floor) lying naked next to his former secretary in the summer heat.

Yes, the whole book is like this which means you, the reader, won’t dare to guess what happens next.   Let’s just say that in the end Anton is forced to make a choice between his old life and his old family, and a new life and a new family.   His choice will also involve a decision to either live outside of the law or within its confines.

At the conclusion of The Singer’s Gun, the reader finds that Anton has determined exactly who he is, and how he must live.   It’s, yes, a revelation at the conclusion of another modern morality tale.   Still, in Singer’s Gun the story isn’t half as important as the telling, and in the hands of Mandel the rocking and rolling never stops.   Whew!

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by Unbridled Books.   The Singer’s Gun will be released on May 4, 2010.

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