Friday, September 30, 2016

Different? Yes, but…

Today Will be Different by Maria Semple


Eleanor is having a very difficult time right now. Her budding cross-dressing son is once again pretending to be sick to get out of school, and she really should be working on her book - her graphic memoir - but one thing leads to another and, well, yes, this day really is turning out to be different; or is it?

When any author makes a splash, my immediate tendency is to read something by that author that’s received less acclaim, if possible. I feel that this is a good way for me to gauge how closely attuned these authors are to my personal taste. That way, if I dislike the writing, I won't be panning something that "everybody loves." On the other hand, if I like this "lesser" work, I can be almost assured that I will enjoy their "hit" as much, if not more. Semple's last novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, was a real success, gaining four and five stars from many authors and reviewers I respect; so the opportunity to read this book was one I couldn't refuse.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Semple's third novel has essentially turned me off to looking at her other work. Now, I realize that Semple is actually a very good writer, particularly when it comes to absurdities and humor. Her track record is one that is quite impressive (having contributed to such fun TV shows as "Mad About You" and "Ellen," as well as helping produce "Arrested Development." In fact, there are passages in this book that are so visual that I'm sure they could become great bits on screen. The problem is that as fun as these vignettes are (in and of themselves), they just don't hold together as a cohesive story, at least not on paper. In fact, if done right, this book could be an adorably funny movie. One reason for this is the problems with all of the back-story parts. In the book, these melded almost indistinguishably into the present action, with no segues in the text, and the only thing separating the past from the present being blank lines between the paragraphs or a new page of text (and sometimes not even that). This made for a very confusing read.

Of course, perhaps that was Semple's plan to begin with - to give the readers a book that baffles them in order to amplify Eleanor's being such a befuddled woman. If that's the case, then Semple certainly succeeded. However, as far as I was concerned, the way I had to puzzle over this book annoyed and frustrated me, which made in an overall failure. Moreover, I think that if Semple had succeeded in making Eleanor a more sympathetic character, perhaps this story wouldn't have bothered me as much. I think my main problem with Eleanor was that Semple made her far too clueless despite having a relatively successful career. Yes, there are people who succeed amazingly in one area of their lives while failing miserably in other areas. Unfortunately, in Eleanor's case, Semple underplayed the successes and overplayed her density and inabilities. For example, Eleanor's illustration work was impressive enough to land her a book deal to write a graphic memoir. Sadly, Eleanor's life made her miss her deadline. That's reasonable, until you realize that she's missed that deadline by EIGHT years! I'm sorry, but that's just stupid.

Regrettably, this isn't the only obtuse thing in this book. There are parts in Eleanor's past that pop up seemingly at random, although these are generally the types of things that come back to haunt the present. Semple does follow through with some of these, but when the book finishes there are still bunches of unresolved and unrelated things still out there, flying around like gnats. All of this made me think that somewhere along the way Semple lost the point (or perhaps jumped the shark), and what we're left with is very nicely written work that is simply a jumble of incidents surrounding a very sad woman. Semple repeats this with the beautifully drawn graphic story "The Flood Girls" included in the book, which despite the artistry, is nothing more than a mishmash of pretty but disjointed pictures.

This isn't to say that Semple isn't a talented writer, because I think she is (and she's an accomplished artist, as well), but obviously her previous novel must have been more focused than this one. With all this in mind, and after much deliberation, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to give this book a low rating of two and a half stars out of five, and cannot - in all honesty - recommend it to my readers (although I'm sure some of them might still want to read this. I would love to hear from those that do read this book who disagree with me).



"Today Will be Different" by Maria Semple, published by Hachette Book Group (a division of Little, Brown & Company), release date October 4, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a proof copy of this book in return for an honest review (and if this isn't honest, I don't know what is)!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Teaser Tuesday for September 13, 2016



Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:


  • Grab your current read (or the next book on your reading list)
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teaser:
 "It should have come as no surprise to Eleanor that Lester's party, her baby sister Ivy, Ivy the willowy, translucent one with the fluttery aura (she was the air and Eleanor was the earth), Ivy six-foot-one in ninth grade, who, a week before high school graduation went to model in Paris and then Japan but had no luck in New York where it mattered, who followed an acting coach to the Berkshires which ended up being a cult and had to be rescued by Eleanor and her then-boyfriend Joe, Ivy who miraculously booked a Dior campaign so her face was all over the subways one summer but lost all that money and her modeling connections in an ironically named Ponzi scheme, "Friends Helping Friends," Ivy who hitchhiked to Telluride for an ayahuasca ceremony and stayed three years shacking up with the shaman, Mestre Mike, next finding religion in Fat is a Feminist Issue, Toxic Parents and Healing the Shame that Binds You, this Ivy who became a certified masseuse but quit because the constant transfer of bad energy was making her weak, she was allergic to wheat and cut out sugar before anyone was allergic to wheat and cut out sugar, she also refused to eat meat because it was biting into animal screams and she avoided nuts because viruses clung to nuts, the Ivy whose skin had become dry and eye sockets saggy, who couldn't shake her angry dry cough, who Eleanor's by-then-husband, Joe, a surgeon who knew a dying bulimic when he saw one, checked into an Eating Disorder Unit on Second Avenue where Ivy was forced on arrival to eat a Sloppy Joe on a white bun, despite sobbing and gagging and collapsing on the linoleum floor, Ivy who was now answering phones for David Parry, rock-and-roll manager and husband of Violet, the heat writer of Looper Wash, as a personal favor to Eleanor, Ivy who was now thirty-three and healthy if getting a little old for her act, it was this Ivy who came to Lester's party, it was this Ivy who met Bucky, captivated Bucky, went back to St. Regis with Bucky, and now to New Orleans the next day.

"A year later they were married."

 
--  Today Will be Different by Maria Semple. (Pages 133-4 of the print version.)



PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment on Jenn's latest post, here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Eling for Healing


The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh


Almost a decade after a tragic accident, Maeve Leahy is still trying to come to terms with what happened between her and her identical twin sister, Moira. When a Javanese knife, called a Kris, comes into Maeve's life, its mystery and magic bring these past events to the fore.

After reading Walsh's novel, "Moon Sisters," I noticed that it was her second book. Not long afterwards, this debut novel went on special sale on Amazon, and I decided to buy it. Now that I've read both books, it seems that Walsh likes the theme of sisters and their relationships. Whereas in Moon Sisters, the two girls were of different ages, here we have twins, but the connections between them are equally as strong, with equal amounts of highlights and conflicts between them. The most striking difference between these books is the vehicles that Walsh uses to further these stories. In Moon Sisters, Olivia's Synesthesia plays a large part in the story. Here, however, we have the magical realism (or perhaps I should call it mystical realism) of the power behind the Kris. Mind you, the mixing up of the senses that Synesthesia causes is somewhat similar to the unexplained effects that the Kris has on Maeve. On the other hand, the Synesthesia allowed for far more poetry in Walsh's prose than this book included.

Walsh's style here was somewhat less developed here than in her second book, you can still see her talent for drawing images with words was already well in play. As for her plot development, there were many elements used to further the story. We had chapters of Maeve and Moira as young girls, to deepen our understanding of them and their relationship. For the present day story, Walsh introduces us to I felt that Walsh used the Kris somewhat unevenly, although this wasn't very problematic. What I mean by this is that Walsh uses the Kris as a vehicle in the present, mostly to point up the relationship between Maeve and Moira, which worked fine. However, during the parts where the book goes back to when Maeve and Moira are young, the event that involved a similar knife back then seemed insignificant, by comparison. This is probably because the Kris wasn't part of the major incident between the twins. Furthermore, Maeve's relationship with Noel, who meets her in Rome to find the author of the anonymous notes about the Kris, has another angle to it besides romance. This complicates things with the plot, but not enough to make it too difficult to follow.

The complexities of the plot, and the weaknesses I found there, are the main reasons why I can't give five stars to this book. The other reason is that I also felt that the character development was a touch on the thin side. Yes, all of the main characters were sympathetic, and Walsh gave us good amounts of information in their back-stories to help us understand their motivations behind their actions. However, they didn't really come alive for me, and I had a hard time picturing them fully in my imagination. This is where Walsh's second novel is more successful, but more importantly, where we can see how she's progressed and improved as a writer.

In short, although this novel isn't perfect, I did enjoy it. Most particularly, I found the story to be compelling, and I liked how the narrative flipped between Moira in the chapters describing their youth, and Maeve during the present day sections. I appreciated the research into the Kris, and that Walsh didn't overwhelm us with boring facts, but allowed the history to seep into the story, and thereby enrich both the book and its readers. I also think that the title of this book has a deeper meaning than the obvious, and I always appreciate that (especially since I also like to pique readers' interest through mysterious titles). For all this, I think that three and a half stars out of five is the right rating for this book, and I can certainly recommend it.




"The Last Will of Moira Leahy" by Therese Walsh is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Should Regions for ARCs still be a thing?

So far and yet so near…



As most of my readers know, I live in Israel. Because of this, sometimes when I request advance reader copies (or ARCs) of books from sites like NetGalley, publishers sometimes decline my requests. No, this isn't antisemitism or some nasty BDS "gotcha." The reason they give is that they don't have the rights to give out ARCs to locations outside their domain. Lately, however, I've been thinking this is a bit strange, and if you think about it, effectively outmoded, especially when it comes to people who review books for the Internet (remember, it is call the World Wide Web, because it connects all corners of the globe).

Let me explain. On the one hand, it is true that publishers sometimes release physical books weeks, days and sometimes, even years in their own country before they decide to release them in other countries. There are also books that publishers never release abroad. Interested readers from other countries either are totally out of luck, or forced to incur high shipping costs. Of course, other options are getting friend to bring these books on a visit, or waiting to buy them on their next visit to the publication country. However, if that book really takes off, that publisher then has the possibility of making more money by selling the foreign rights to another publisher, or giving their affiliate publishers abroad the rights to publish these best sellers. As usual, everything is about knowing their markets and increasing their profits, so publishers probably do have good reasons to have regional rights for print books.

However, the Internet has made the world a whole lot smaller. For example, despite how strange this seems, I can't buy kindle editions of books from Amazon's UK site, but I can buy print versions from them. On the other hand, I can buy both kindle and print books through Amazon's American site. Mind you, shipping costs from both Amazon sites for print books are unbelievably high. On the other hand, there are also sites like the Book Depository, which ships books worldwide without charging for shipping (yes, their basic book prices are a touch higher than other places, but they're nothing like the final prices you'll be charged after you add the exorbitant shipping costs from bigger sellers). Of course, there are other online sites to buy both eBooks and print books. Some don't care where your IP address originates from, but others do. (I haven't quite figured out how iTunes works out their international buyers due to the lack of Apple products we own.) Still, when it comes to buying books, it seems to me that where you live no longer matters. With just a little searching (and any number of work-around options), you can get almost any book in any format, these days, no matter where you live.

You should know that on NetGalley, when a publisher sets regions for books, they are mostly for English speaking countries, with the EU sometimes included. Often I'll see a US flag, with or without the flag for Canada. UK flags are sometimes on their own, but they often come with EU flags or with flags of Australia and New Zealand.

With that in mind, let's look at my blog. I have noticed that my blog gets visitors from across the world. In fact, according to AdSense, nearly 60% of my page views come from the USA. A look at the top-ten of countries where my page views come from will give you this list:

  1. USA
  2. Israel
  3. Russia
  4. UK
  5. Canada
  6. Australia
  7. India
  8. Sweden
  9. New Zealand
  10. Ireland

If I look at impressions, the list is just slightly different, as follows:

  1. USA
  2. Israel
  3. UK
  4. Canada
  5. Russia
  6. Australia
  7. India
  8. Sweden
  9. New Zealand
  10. Norway


As you can see from the countries marked in bold, my blog gets significant page views and/or impressions from most of the regions where books are restricted. This, combined with today's ability to purchase both print and eBooks internationally, is why I wonder if there should still a problem with approving a region specific book to someone who lives outside that region. More importantly, why do North American publishers refuse my requests, when no matter which way you slice it, my blog gets the majority of its views and impressions from the within that region? 

Considering all this, what do you think - should regions for ARCs still be a thing, or not?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Nine Times November 11, 1918

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War


It isn't often that a group of authors come together to make a collection of short stories. From what I can see, most collections with various authors are ones that a publisher collected, often from a slew of single-author collections. In this case, the publishers seem to have enlisted nine of their most talented historical fiction writers with a challenge - write a short story that includes both of these two elements: love and November 11, 1918.

The first element is, of course, a vast subject. The second, however - the end of WW1 - is far more specific. The combination of the two gives us something just right - focused stories that have the depth of different viewpoints.

I already was familiar with the works of two of the contributing authors. One is Jessica Brockmole, whose debut novel "Letters from Skye" was one of my top five books of 2013. The other is Heather Webb, who was sweet enough to send me a copy of this book for this review. I thoroughly enjoyed Webb's first novel "Becoming Josephine," but her second novel, "Rodin's Lover," was even better and made it into my top five books of 2015. It was therefore no surprise that I loved both of their contributions to this collection.

Brockmole's story "Something worth Landing for," is about a man who meets an abandoned pregnant girl in France, and decides to marry her only hours before shipping off to finish his training as a fighter pilot. This story is told mostly through the letters she sends him, and the ones he wants to send back (she tells him not to write her), together with messages he sends to his mother to get the documents needed to finalize the marriage. The beauty, humor and originality of this story only prove that Brockmole is the epistolary queen of historical fiction, and I do hope she publishes another book soon!

Webb's story, "Hour of the Bells," is about Beatrix, a German woman whose true allegiance is to her chosen country - France. First, her husband dies in the war. Then she receives a letter telling her about her only son's loss in one of the battles against the Germans. Overwhelmed with grief, she decides she must take revenge. Webb's artistry here is inspiring, as she switches between giving us the history of this family, and the present action. The title of the story also reflects this, which encompasses both the fateful theme date, as well as the profession of Beatrix's husband - who was a clock maker.

At the same time, as enjoying familiar writers, I also expected to discover new authors, and this collection didn't disappoint. In fact, I have to say that there wasn't even one story that I didn't like. Each of them had a unique spin on the subject, with interesting plots, sympathetic characters, and the quality of the writing was top notch, bar none. That said, I must admit that I did have favorites among the seven stories by writers I hadn't heard of until now.

Probably the most unusual of these was "The Photograph" by Kate Kerrigan. In this story, we see a side of this war that most people probably know the least about - the British in Ireland. Even as war raged on the western front against Germany, with British and Irish soldiers fighting side-by-side there, the declaration of the new Republic meant insurrections against the British in Ireland. This story is about a British soldier stationed near Dublin and the woman he falls in love with, who is technically his enemy. Although November 11 didn't end the fighting in Ireland, it does come into play in this story, and very cleverly at that. This type of creativity was what made me pick out this story as one of the standouts of the book.

The other story that I found particularly exceptional, was "The Record Set Right," by Lauren Willig. What surprised me with this story was how it starts in 1980. Willig begins with Camilla in Kenya and then going to England. The back-story takes place in England in 1915 as well as after the war has ended, and Camilla's relationship with two brothers - Nicolas and Edward. This is a story of people separated by both the war, and a misunderstanding, where the pivotal date of the theme sits carefully in the background. In fact, Willig almost ignores November 11 in her story, which I found to be unique among the other stories that used this date more centrally. Instead, she places her characters at the forefront, with them both beautifully rendered, and carefully flawed.

Again, this isn't to say that the other stories here are in any way inferior, but to write about them all would make this review too long, and these were my favorites. I'll certainly be on the lookout for other works by Willig and Kerrigan, as well as keep all of the other authors in mind for future reads. This is also going on my permanent bookshelves, since I'm certain I'll be reading these stories again and again (probably for the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1). In short, this is a marvelous collection of short stories, and I highly recommend it, with a full five out of five stars!



"Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War" is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank author Heather Webb for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Fantastical Fable


Little Nothing by Marisa Silver


In one of the more beautifully written books I've ever read, Silver brings us a story that blends fantasy with reality into a hybrid fable of the weird and the wonderful, of loss and of love and so much more.

I don't usually read fantasy books, but something about this novel piqued my interest, and I am terribly glad it did. This is the story of Pavla, a dwarf born in an unnamed Slavic country (my guess, the area of the former Czechoslovakia, which only becomes truly obvious near the end of the book), who lives a life filled with transformations. First, her community sees Pavla as a curse, someone to fear, who might bring bad luck. Then, just when she finally gains acceptance her parents try to "cure" her small stature. The last "treatment" succeeds in making her taller, but the additional disastrous results, causes her to flee with the "doctor" and his assistant, Danilo to join a carnival. What comes after this is a carefully engineered story of failures and triumphs, which wind around each other until they all come together with clock-like precision.

Probably the most striking thing about this novel is Silver's writing style. It feels that she chooses her words carefully, so that their cadences create an atmosphere that hovers between waking and dreaming. That she achieves this with such fluidity and simplicity, while giving this a feeling reminiscent of the well-known fables passed down from generation to generation is what is truly impressive. The word "glistens" comes to mind to describe it.

Much like many fables, many parts of this story are truly unpleasant. These include the practically torturous way that Pavla's parents try to cure her from her dwarfism, and a rape scene that ends in a gory death. However, despite these nasty sections, I didn't find this book to be heavy whatsoever. In fact, Silver uses these more repellent passages in order to alter her characters (yes, both physically and emotionally), and then takes us from there to more hopeful situations - even though sometimes the conditions initially feel practically desperate - on the surface. Silver also balances these darker parts of her story with gently flowing prose, tenderly smattered with poetic imagery.

Of course, what would a good fable be if it didn't include some magical or fantastical elements? Silver gives us plenty of these, along with enough doses of reality to help us from disbelieving her overall concept. Add to this a plot that has an abundance of twists and turns that grab our attention and hold onto it from start to finish, but amazingly, never confuses us. Finally, she builds her characters with such love and affection that we cannot help but hope for a happily ever after ending. I will not reveal if Silver delivers this, but I will say that the conclusion of this novel was both unique and surprising.

I'm sure you can tell by now that this novel essentially bowled me over. The writing, the characters, the plot, the language, the atmosphere and even the fantasy just came together in a harmonious symphony that was a joy to read. Obviously, I have to give this a full five out of five stars, and highly recommend it - even to non-fantasy readers.



"Little Nothing" by Marisa Silver published by Blue Rider Press (Penguin Group), release date September 13, 2016 will be available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.