Tag Archives: William Morrow

Sisters of the Moon

Almost Sisters: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

almost sisters

Every family has secrets that persist over generations.  When a family happens to have its roots in a small town in Alabama, long-standing Southern mores bring added depth to its history.  Author Joshilyn Jackson has written a family tale worthy of high praise, The Almost Sisters.  Her main character, cartoonist Leia Birch, is the family outlier.  Her stepsister, Rachel, is the conventional, perfectionist Southern wife who resides in a faux-Tara home with her husband, Jake, and daughter, Lavender.

Leia Birch is not just a cartoonist; she’s the artist behind a DC Comics limited series, Violence in Violet.  The success of the series brought Leia to a comic-book convention in Atlanta where she was the featured artist.  Months later Leia has a secret that she knows will only be met with acceptance by her beloved grandmother, Miss Birchie.

Miss Birchie has her own secrets; although, if she can’t stay quiet in church, at least half of Birchville will find out.  The town, founded by her family, retains many vestiges of the old South.  There is the white neighborhood and the colored one.  People have their places in society and the ridged structure rarely bends to accommodate modern beliefs from outside.

Leia not only has a secret, she has a contract to write and illustrate the prequel for her Violence in Violet series.  The pressure is on as she drives to Birchville to confide in her grandmother.  Little does she suspect that what awaits her may be beyond what she’s able to handle.  There is more than one set of sisters.

Readers will be drawn into the fascinating threads of Author Jackson’s tale.  This book may be fiction but it could also be drawn from real life.  Ms. Jackson is that good at conveying the humanity of each of her unforgettable characters.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  Almost Sisters will be released on July 11, 2017.

 

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Against All Odds

The Odds of You and Me: A Novel by Cecilia Galante (William Morrow, $14.99, 384 pages)

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Cecilia Galante’s The Odds of You and Me combines multiple themes – the underdog, youth, love and forgiveness – into one very solid novel.  Without providing a spoiler, if the reader is hoping that tough odds will be overcome and a Hollywood-style ending is in store, forget it.  This is not a Hallmark or Disney movie.  Nevertheless, this story may appeal to readers who are open to a unique display of what happiness, life, grit, and perseverance mean in the real world.

In Odds, Bernadette “Bird” Sincavage bears a child at a young age under less than ideal circumstances.  She is close to being released from probation when she happens to cross the path of James – a former co-worker, a bad boy that she found to be fascinating.  James is being hunted by the police and Bird is unintentionally drawn back into the complicated orbit of his life.

As the story’s details begin to come together, there are “gray” decisions to be made.  Mrs. Ross, a probation officer, and Jane and Mr. Herron – two of the individuals whose homes Bird cleans, recognize her basic goodness and become advocates for her.

James, destined to be an ill-fated match for Bird, is the ultimate hero/villain.  It’s up to the reader to make up his or her mind in terms of what’s right and wrong; which is precisely why this is a very good, challenging novel.

Bird’s mother sees things in simple black and white, and Catholic priest Father Delaney (a representative of a church that has seen much controversy and turmoil in modern times) attempts to provide a measure of moral conscience.  But there are no easy answers; matters remain quite complicated.

The Odds of You and Me works at many levels, and should appeal to many readers including a potentially significant number of young adults.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Odds of You and Me is (a novel) in the vein of Meg Donohue and Sarah Jio.”  Amazon

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and he is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

 

 

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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)

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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)

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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.

 

 

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Songs in the Key of Life

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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.)

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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.

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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.

 

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Don’t You (Forget About Me)

searching-for-john-hughes

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned From Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond (William Morrow, $15.99, 285 pages)

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

“It was time to start paying attention, because I didn’t want to miss anything else. I didn’t find John Hughes, but instead I found the things I really needed.” – Jason Diamond

It’s rare to read a book about someone’s unsuccessful attempt to write a book. But that’s what this memoir is about. Jason Diamond spent years researching and writing a book about 80s film director and producer John Hughes. He eventually gave up his quest – which took most of his twenties – literally a couple of days before he believed he would meet Hughes in person. Then, to make things ever more tragic and dramatic, he learned that Hughes had died of a heart attack.

Hughes died not in Chicago, where Diamond was headed at the time, but in New York City. Diamond lived in Brooklyn. So the gods had clearly determined that Diamond’s hip biography of Hughes would never be published.

This would seem to mean that there’s not much of a story for Diamond to tell here. Oh, but there is. It’s the story of a person – all too common these days – overflowing with self-effacing feelings. All Diamond ever wanted to do was write, but his efforts never seemed to pan out. So he placed all his hopes and fears into producing “the book” that was to turn his life around. Of course, there were a few problems and obstacles along the way – chiefly that neither Hughes nor any of the actors in his films ever agreed to meet or be interviewed by Diamond. (As might occur in a bad film, Diamond did come into awkward contact with some of these actors in New York City.)

There was also the fact that the man who said he would be Diamond’s book agent never signed a contract to fulfill that commitment, never did any actual work on Diamond’s behalf, and left the business before Diamond’s bio draft was completed.

Diamond had to learn the hard way that one cannot spend one’s entire life waiting for something that may never arrive. It was only when he erased all of his work on the ever-unfinished Hughes bio that his life actually began. And, yes, this was a good thing.

While Searching for John Hughes does not in fact live up to its ambitious subtitle – it may have been more properly subtitled as My Search for the Ghost of John Hughes – kudos go to Diamond for summarizing the philosophy of Hughes’s work in brief fashion:

Life is full of constant sadness and the world can be a cruel place. Yet what Hughes offers in his films is the idea that one single day can be great, and that’s all you need if you live in the moment. That one day can turn into a second, and third, and many more consecutive great days. There will be pitfalls here and there, chemicals in your brain, tragedy that you can’t prepare yourself for, or tyrannical vice principals trying to hold you down, but the trick is to open yourself up to the idea that great things can just happen, that the good is just as much a part of life as the bad.

And Diamond summarized his own early adult life in this succinct way:

One day you think you have a great idea, then five minutes, hours, days – or in my case – years later you finally realize that it’s time to put it away. Sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t slow down, if you let your obsessions and anger and fear stop you from looking around, you could miss some really important things.

This is a quite enjoyable work by writer Jason Diamond. I very much look forward to reading his next release.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Searching for John Hughes was released on November 29, 2016.

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Four on the Floor

Four British Mysteries featuring Inspector Banks by Peter Robinson.

peter-robinson

Peter Robinson is an author who has been busy creating an engaging series of mystery novels since 1987. He’s wildly popular and yet, somehow this reviewer has missed out on the entertaining Inspector Alan Banks series. Enter a selection sent by the publisher containing the most recent work, When the Music’s Over (#23), and two trade paper versions of previously released books, In a Dry Season (#10) and In the Dark Places (#22).

What followed was a marathon session of immersion into this series. The bonus was finding a dated advance reader’s copy of Bad Boy (#19) that had been shelved in our library since 2010! Author Robinson is a master at bringing the reader into the atmosphere of his tale. City or country, each is thoroughly believable. Music also performs a role in setting the pace of the action as well as giving the reader a sense of his characters’ tastes and temperaments.

Robinson often develops two strong plot lines that converge in the solution to the mystery/murder case being investigated. These plot lines can be set in the past and the present, or simultaneously occurring the present. Of the four books I’ve read, all have been primarily located in London and rural areas of England with some travel to other countries.

The characters one comes to know and appreciate are: Inspector Alan Banks – later in the series he’s Detective Superintendent Banks; Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot – Banks’ sidekick and onetime love interest; Banks’ daughter, Annie, who ages as the series progresses; and various members of the police squads wherever Banks is assigned.

The main crime topic is always murder, usually with a side dish of criminal enterprises including kidnapping, drug sales, and general mayhem. As one would expect, there are ample red herrings to keep the reader working along with Banks, Cabbot, et al.

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In a Dry Season: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $14.99, 442 pages)

In a Dry Season opens with a prologue dated 1967. A woman who has been recently widowed has a secret past. She travels to the town where she grew up, Hobbs End, which is now at the bottom of a reservoir. Next, the story shifts to present day (1999) where a young boy is exploring the ruins of Hobbs End that have been recently exposed due to a drought. The boy, much to his horror, unearths a skeleton.

What follows is a British police procedural complete with the attitudes toward female detectives prevalent in that era. Three well-developed plot lines provide the reader with a most engaging read.

Highly recommended.

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Bad Boy: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $25.99, 352 pages)

Bad Boy features Tracy Banks, at this time a young adult, who is distancing herself from her father. Tracy is working at a dead end job after doing poorly on her college exams. Roommate Erin Doyle is not much better off in her waitressing job; although she does have an attractive boyfriend who gives her gifts and shows Erin a good time. Jaff, the boyfriend, has no visible means of support – hence he’s most likely the bad boy of the book’s title.

The young women and their respective families have been friends for many years. All the normal life that went before is horribly derailed by misguided acts that result in consequences that neither girl could have possibly anticipated. The tale brings the reader with Annie Cabbot and Alan Banks as they traverse the English countryside hunting for Tracy and Jaff.

Highly recommended.

In the Dark Places: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $14.99, 336 pages)

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In the Dark Places has the most convoluted and intricate plot lines of the four books I read. Inspector Banks and his team are challenged by several peculiar disappearances and subsequent murder discoveries. Their best detecting skills are needed when a young man goes missing and a truck driven by a seasoned driver tumbles off a slick and twisting road during a hailstorm killing the driver and tossing his cargo onto the steep hillside below the road.

DNA, cell phone records and GPS tracking are heavily relied upon in order to crack the multiple crimes committed by a devious and thoroughly ruthless mastermind whose obsession with money powers his actions. Author Robinson’s smooth writing allows the reader to be engaged while navigating the plot developments that are clever and even subtly misleading.

Well recommended.

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When the Music’s Over: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $25.99, 421 pages)

When the Music’s Over is a slowly developing police procedural that follows two cases. The first is a cold case involving the rape of vulnerable underage teens perpetuated by a highly successful man in show business who is now in his mid-eighties. The second is the discovery of a brutally murdered white teen whose life was ended on a country road after being brutally attacked by men in a van.

The two cases are simultaneously investigated; the cold case is assigned to DS Alan Banks and the teen murder is assigned to DI Anne Cabbot. Although the exploitation of teen girls is the common theme of the cases, that’s where the similarity ends. A rich white man and a group of scheming Pakistani men could not be more dissimilar in their social standing. Regardless, the end justifies the means for both.

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This, the most recent of the series, tends to develop at a painstaking pace for nearly half the book. Once the groundwork has been completed, the action picks up and the reader is rewarded with some serious detective work involving bravery and solid instincts. Caution, this tale is not for the faint of heart.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

When the Music’s Over was released on August 9, 2016.

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Volunteers

jb-without-mercy

Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, $26.99, 342 pages)

As we headed to the Anthropology Department’s pickup truck, the back loaded with body bags, shovels, rakes, cameras, and anything else we might need to work a death scene, I felt a surge of energy – excitement, even – and for the moment, at least, I forgot to be morose about the prospect of Miranda’s graduation and departure.

Faithful readers of the celebrated Body Farm novels will delight in the measured pace taken by the authors to gently move into a tale bound to contain ghastly examples of man’s inhumanity to man. Before the shocking jolt brought on by the remains of a crime, there are the beautiful descriptions of the locale, usually on or near the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Along with the botany and geography, one can expect information regarding the sociologic background of the region where the tale takes place.

A call for assistance has come to Dr. Bill Brockton from Jim O’Conner, sheriff of Cooke County. As with many of the past requests for assistance received by the UT Anthropology Department, the remains of a crime discovered long past its commission pose a difficult challenge for Sheriff O’Conner and his deputy, Waylon. Dr. Brockton and his PhD candidate/assistant, Miranda Lovelady, drop what they are doing and get on the road to help their friends.

What makes this, the tenth book in the Body Farm series, unique is that it ties together a new plot line with an old one that has been revived with a twist. Moreover, there’s a surprise ending. Rather than posting a spoiler alert, this reviewer encourages loyal readers to consider the time, effort and painstaking care that goes into the creation of these books. The authors provide well-written, well-researched and heartfelt novels worthy of the praise that they have earned.

A world in which fiction characters live out their destiny is all the more enjoyable when the basic foundation is located in the real world. On a recent weekend, this reviewer and her husband were having an early Saturday dinner at a local restaurant. Of course there were televisions mounted in the corners of the dining room playing the afternoon college football games one expects to see. The game nearest our table featured the University of Tennessee Volunteers. The game held no fascination for me; however, when the camera pulled away from the field for a long view of the stadium, I nearly screamed, “OMG, it’s Neyland! Dr. Brockton’s office is underneath it!” That’s a real testament to the fascination and connection the Body Farm novels have created for me.

Thank you Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on October 4, 2016.

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