Friday, January 6, 2017

Guest Author Post: Joanna Paterson

I don't have time to read all of the book requests I get, but I still try to help indie authors, when I can. That's why I'm pleased to present you with this guest post from Author Joanna Paterson, aka Joanna Geyer-Kordesch, Professor emerita for European Natural History and the History of Medicine, Honorary Senior Professorial Fellow, The College of Arts, University of Glasgow. In this post, Joanna talks about her short story and poetry collections. Take a look - they sound really lovely!

My two books of short stories, “The Old Turk and Other Tales” and “Through the Mirror”, examine that tricky balance between experience and the spiritual world that anyone—and the author—would encounter or like to encounter. There are realms which take us beyond ourselves—and I like to explore them. Short stories should stimulate thinking—they are always potentially true. So many of them lose themselves in the usual earthbound stories about romance and the twists and turns of people in love, but I tried to go beyond those confines to involve spiritual worlds. The short stories I wrote are phantastic in the sense that they treat the unseen as a vital encounter, but engage with it, also, if you think of it that way, as a possible extension of the Self.

The stories don’t tell you what to do. They are meetings with vibrant beings, ways of seeing. Some are fun, like the story about hats in the Old Turk collection. I also call to mind the ancient goddesses and what they represent—this in Through the Mirror. You can visualise this as about memory and about the sea and the land. I have been to these places myself—but they are transformed and show themselves in a new way.

I explore Europe and ancient places in Ohio, U.S.A., and what they represent, the unusual, the dialogue with them that can create connections, letting go the mundane, the things you are used to. I hope there is pleasure in these extensions of the mind’s adventures.

What I liked most are the stories of transformation in “Through the Mirror”. The metamorphosis does not have to be into human lives, but can be a bird such as in “Jenny Wren”. Or it can have a message as in “The Owls of Scarba”. And then there are some places that simply evoke the moon and thinking in different ways of where you are, such as in an eighteenth century tower in Dessau, Germany, or in a long forgotten village in Austria.

The Shaman Birches of Argyll” and “The Travelling Moon”, my poetry books, on the other hand, are grounded in experience and often on watching the sea while sailing on the West Coast of Scotland. They are an exploration of nature and lochs and birds, indigenous or otherwise, especially the seabirds that visit. These show closeness with nature that can only be vitally expressed in poetry. I think about the natural world and try to find it again in words. I was born in the land-locked—except for the cross European river Danube—city of Vienna. So this is an encounter with a different and exciting world.

My books of poetry probe the new countryside in the Highlands where water is everywhere—the mysterious sea, the lochs and the burns. The rising moon, the trees and ferns that grow wild on hillsides are also featured. The essence of the poetry is both myth and place. Nature has different dimensions and I want to bring them close to the reader. Poetry gives feelings and vision in versions that other genres cannot.

I do not believe that even adult books should be without images. So I have given all my books illustrations. I hope you like the way words and pictures go together!

My books are all available from Amazon as Kindle or print-on-demand editions under the name Joanna Paterson. You can contact Joanna by mail at Dundas Yews, Saltoun Hall Gardens, Pencaitland, East Lothian, EH34 5DS, Scotland.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Poetic Youth

20 by Vatsal Surti

The unnamed protagonist in this expressive novella is only 20 years old, but she seems to have quite an old soul. When she meets a man her age and falls in love with him, it seems her life is finally beginning to change, despite her unending mood swings and a shaky relationship with her father, who has just contacted her after many years of estrangement.

To tell the truth, I almost gave up on this book several times, but I'm glad I didn't. On the one hand, one of the biggest drawbacks was that there seem to be quite a few problems with the English. Thankfully, Surti's publisher recently wrote to us reviewers to assure us that they've assigned a new (English language) editor to fix these problems. (In any case, I figured that either this is a less than successful translation, or Surti's first language is certainly not English.)

Despite the language problems, Surti writes very poetically, using a "stream of consciousness" type of narrative, which feels both pensive and observant. I've often said that one of the problems with a poetic style of writing is that sometimes it can feel overly floral and repressive. Although Surti did overstep in some places in this book, for the most part Surti avoided this pitfall, and the poetry mostly enhanced rather than detracted from the text, so that was at least something.

Unfortunately, what Surti wasn't able to escape from was an almost endless rehashing of the same feelings. I understand that Surti's point here was to get us to understand the depths of emotion that this girl was going through. This included elation and expectations as well as despair and fears. It was almost as if Surti was giving us a portrait of a bi-polar girl, trying to find her place in the world without diagnosis or treatment. That Surti places her smack dab in the public eye, within the extremely stressful world of modeling and fashion, seems to aggravate her problems. However, each time Surti describes another aspect of the roller-coaster of her emotions we increasingly feel manic or depressed along with her. The latter was my main problem with this book. It isn't that I don't like sad passages in novels (as my readers know, I actually like a good cry), but I that can't happen until after the author has successfully built protagonists that I can like and care deeply about. Sadly, Surti gave us characters that were more annoying than sympathetic.

Still, Surti shows no small amount of writing talent (despite the grammar and odd usage of the English language, which I'm sure they'll fix soon). This made me think that this novella might have fared better as a short story. At that size, perhaps the angst and euphoria would have been less repetitious, allowing Surti to give us a better balance with the action to back up those feelings. All told, while this book didn't enamor me, and I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, I think Surti has potential for greatness someday (of course, with the help of a good editor). For all this, I think I'll give it three out of five stars.

"20" by Vatsal Surti is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, iTunes, and Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia). I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Here, there and maybe nowhere

This must be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell

Daniel Sullivan is a bit of a mess; with more than his fair share of screwed up relationships, when he meets Claudette, it seems like things might take a different turn for once. That isn't to say that Claudette, the woman who ran away from a successful film career, has any better of a track record, but certainly love can overcome any difficulties. However, since some people never seem to learn from their mistakes, when do you know if you should give them a second chance?

I've read all of O'Farrell's novels to date, and so far, I've generally enjoyed her work, and in some cases, even enthralled (and you can read my overview of all her previous novels, here). O'Farrell really knows how to build characters, with interesting back-stories and then find fascinating situations for them. Often these situations surround some kind of relationship or another - be it romantic or familial, and sometimes, both. It is always obvious from her stories that she knows these characters down to their last freckles, and probably better than they know themselves. This also means that when O'Farrell reveals something that seems insignificant about any of them, she not only knows why that detail is important, but how it will play out in the end. O'Farrell's characters in this novel are no less loved and complex than in her previous work, and in fact, I found the two main characters - Claudette and Daniel - to be captivating and among her best.

One of the other things that O'Farrell is a true master of is taking different timelines - usually two - and carefully inching them towards each other. With them in play, she works to meld them together so that at just the right time, the essential connection is made, which segues into a twisting climax that can bring tears to your eyes, if not take your breath away. In her previous novel, "Instructions for a Heat Wave," O'Farrell was more ambitious with using only contemporary, parallel timelines, but with individual characters. While I generally enjoyed that book, I don't think she succeeded in evoking the same emotional heights as she did with her two previous novels.

On the other hand, O'Farrell fills this novel with chapters from the viewpoint of several different characters, dated from 1989 through 2016, and set anywhere between California and France. Thankfully, most of the viewpoints are Daniel's; most of the entries are from around 2010, and; a majority of the chapters takes place in Donegal, Ireland. These constancies make up the core of the action, with the other chapters scattered around them to give background or insights into the main protagonists by providing other viewpoints. The concept here is actually very creative, and in theory, this could have been very effective. Unfortunately, I don't think that O'Farrell fully pulled this off, since instead, we got something that felt somewhat disjointed. I found it hard to pinpoint a real climax here, and with that, I found it difficult to understand the motivations behind some of the actions and several of the reactions of the characters. This made me feel disconnected from the characters, which neutralized the emotional impact of the book overall.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy this book entirely. In fact, I found the idea behind story compelling and the characters fascinating (particularly Claudette), and O'Farrell's writing style as vivid as usual. I also particularly enjoyed O'Farrell's descriptions of Donegal and the house where Claudette and Daniel lived, which she succeeded in evoking dramatic pictures in my mind. That said, I think this is actually one of her weaker novels, and although I still recommend it to O'Farrell's fans, I can only give it three and a half stars out of five.

"This Must be the Place" by Maggie O'Farrell, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Scale of a Family

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Readers of Michael Chabon's novels know that he has a wonderful way of mixing reality and fiction, to the extent that the lines can feel very blurred. I noticed this in his "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which won him the Pulitzer. Although that novel, (which I really should review someday) focuses on the rise of superhero comic books, with an aside into the realm of magical realism, this book takes on a much more personal form. Here, Chabon takes the last 10 days of his grandfather's life (well, step-grandfather, to be precise) and uses the recounting of the events of this man's life in order to create a fictional biography, or memoir. In this way, Chabon not only makes protagonists out of real-life relatives, but he also places himself and other family members into the cast of characters.

Apparently, Chabon's (step) grandfather led a fascinating life. As an engineer, he was fascinated with rocketry, and that led to his fascination with the space program. Before this, during WW2, he was one of the people assigned to hunt down the scientists working for the Nazis to bring them back to the US. His wife, Chabon's (biological) grandmother hid from the Nazis in a convent, where she gave birth to Chabon's mother (out of wedlock). The effect this had on her mental health ended up being both a point of attraction and frustration throughout their lives together. It also seems that without him, Chabon's mother might have had a worse childhood than she had (which was nowhere near ideal, and in some cases, appalling).

Bringing all of this together into something that was this entertaining seems practically impossible. However, Chabon's precision balancing the facts and history with the human elements of the characters kept this from feeling morbid or depressing. At the same time, Chabon carefully injected humor and compassion into the imaginary events and conversations, without ever trivializing anything or anyone involved. In this way, Chabon was able to blur the lines between imagination and reality, thereby bringing the whole story to life. This reminded me of how historical events can feel more real when dramatized, docu-drama style.

That Chabon used his own family members in this fashion also struck me as terribly brave. Not just because of how his family may or may not have reacted to this book, but because sometimes authors can actually get too close to their own characters. If this happens, we easily recognize this by their including too much detail, or finding ways to stick things in which are superfluous or irrelevant. That can often manifest with meandering texts of inexplicable tangents that flow from one off topic subject to another, ad tedium (a la some of John Irving's more recent novels). Chabon comes dangerously close to crossing this line (for example, with the whole bit about trying to hunt down a cat-killing boa constrictor, or all the perfectly scaled models he builds of rockets and spacecrafts), but thankfully succeeds in holding himself back, for the most part. What we have here is a gathering of accounts that feel loving, human and realistic, but somehow still a thing of fiction.

In his introduction, Chabon states that he wrote this novel as a sort of rebellion against the secrets his family kept, and which he felt were detrimental to them all. After his saying this, it was very impressive how Chabon leads us to his climactic twist dealing his family's ultimate secret, and potentially the most damaging one of all. What I loved was that Chabon slips this in with an "ah-ha" moment, instead of beating us on the head with it. That allowed him use this to just color everything he's written before then faintly, leaving you with questions that compel you to read to the close of the book. I would say more about this, but that might lead to spoilers, so just trust me on this - it will raise eyebrows. In short, I found this a praiseworthy novel, that well deserves (at least most of) the accolades it is already getting. I found it worthy of a strong four and a half stars out of five.

"Moonglow" by Michael Chabon published by Harper Collins, released November 22, 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), 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 an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Five (or seven) GOOD things to come out of 2016

Since 2016 has been such a rotten year in general, it is always nice to find something positive to focus on. One bright light I can give you is my "Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016." As in past years, it seems that once again, I need to squeeze in more than just five. This year, I have two books tied for second place, which is a bit of a surprise - but you'll understand that better when you read below. I'm also going to put two books in my fifth place spot, since I cannot decide which of these I liked better, so I can't relegate either one to the honorable mention slot (for which I have nothing this year). That said, this is quite an eclectic collection of books, and I can assure you that the pleasure I got out of each of these books also differed one from the other. Let the countdown begin… (links in the titles are to my full reviews of these books).

#5 - Fall of Poppies by various authors / Little Nothing by Marissa Silver (tie)

Further to what I noted above, I cannot think of two books that differed more than these two. Fall of Poppies is a collection of short stories, each one written by a different author, that center on November 11, 1918 - the end of the First World War. Every one of these stories is an absolute gem, and not only was I able to recall why I love the writing of authors I already knew (such as Heather Webb and Jessica Brockmole), but I also got the opportunity to discover new historical fiction writers to fall in love with. Their various writing styles combined with different approaches to the subject matter was what made me give this collection a full five stars.

Little Nothing by Marissa Silver is one of the more beautifully written books I've ever read. In this book, 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. As someone who generally shies away from the fantasy genre, that Silver succeeded in getting me to put this book on this list is a huge achievement.

#4 - The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg

It’s a Fannie Flagg book; need I say more? Seriously, this is a real charmer of a novel, which has an interesting twist. On the one hand, we revisit many of Flagg's characters from several of her other novels, and thereby discover the full history of the town of Elmwood Springs from its humble beginnings to present day and beyond. On the other hand, Flagg innovates with this book by adding a touch of unexpected magical realism to the story, with conversations between deceased residents in their town cemetery. This may sound slightly morbid on the surface, but I can assure you that Flagg's naivetĂ© of language combined with dollops of humor and her enchanting characters makes this into something quite magical. There's also a lesson here about the state of rural America today, which I wish more people could listen to (even if it does sound somewhat political). No wonder we've seen this noted on other top lists this year.

#3 - My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This is another one of those books showing up on best-of 2016 lists, including on the Goodreads shortlist for best book of the year in the fiction category. In this story about relationships and self-understanding, Strout makes us both feel and see her characters. More importantly, after you've finished reading, I believe you'll feel you really know and understand them. However, what really made me love this book is how she did all that with a surface of simplicity that belies the complexity that lies seamlessly underneath.

#2 - Britt-Marie was Here / And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman (tie)

Here's your double-whammy from the amazing Fredrik Backman, who got my #1 spot in 2014 and 2015 (and he came devilishly close to achieving that this year as well). His first publication this year, Britt-Marie was Here, is the story of one character from his novel of last year, My Grandmother Sends her Regrets and Apologises (aka My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry). While the previous book (where Britt-Marie is a minor character), has some elements of fantasy (mostly in the minds of his protagonists, Elsa and her grandmother), this story is solidly set in reality throughout. True to form, you won't find a page where you one kind of emotion bubbles up, making you smile, chuckle, guffaw or try to suppress that lump in your throat.

No, Backman didn't publish two full-length novels this year; this second one is a novella, whose title is almost longer than the book itself. In this story, Backman returns to using those somewhat fantastical/magical elements of connection between his protagonists that he used in My Grandmother. This time, he takes us along a journey between Noah, and his grandfather during his last days before his death. Yes, you had better buy some extra tissues before you read this slim work. (By the way, if you happen to be into betting, you would be wise to put your money on his upcoming novel Beartown getting onto my top five books of 2017 already.)

#1 - Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Now you know that any book that kicks Backman off the #1 spot (with two chances to grab it, no less) MUST be amazing, and I promise you, this book is exactly that. The premise here is that the real reason why the Hindenburg burst into flames on May 6, 1937 is still somewhat of a mystery. Ariel Lawhon gives us an amazingly exciting work of historical fiction, employing the flight's actual manifest, to build a cast of fascinating characters and invent a new theory of the accident. Lawhon says in her afterward that she's "desperately proud" of this novel, and I'm utterly confounded that this novel hasn't shown up on any of the best of 2016 book lists I've seen. Personally, I think this is the finest piece of historical fiction writing I've ever read. Therefore, this is my little correction of that mistake. Brava, Ms. Lawhon, and congratulations: you not only gave us a spellbinding novel, but you also gave us my favorite book of the year!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Buzzfeed Blunder on Children's Books

Recently a friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to a Buzzfeed article "13 Children’s Books That Encourage Kindness Towards Others." Admittedly, I am familiar with only two of the books on that list. One is the Dr. Seuss book "Horton Hears a Who," which certainly fits the bill. The other, however, is Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree," and I must object to their including this book on their list.

My biggest problem with "The Giving Tree" is that for me, the boy does not really love the tree at all. While it seems that way to being with, as he grows older, he becomes more and more selfish, and instead of just enjoying the company of the tree, he starts taking bits of it away, until all that is left is a stump. Then, the biggest insult is that when there's nothing left for the tree to give him, the boy continues to use the tree for his own comfort - as a seat to rest upon. Now, if this had been my book, I would have had the boy plant a sapling every time he took something from the tree. That way, as the years went by, the tree would have younger trees to keep it company. Then, when the boy finally returns as an old man, they can enjoy each other's company once again, while also surrounded by all the new trees that the boy gave back as well. In this way, they would know that eventually, other boys would have the benefits of being friends with the trees and the joys of communing with nature.

Of course, I'm not a writer of children's books, and my readers know that I seldom review them for this blog. Nevertheless, there was a time when I had young children, and I too looked for books to read to them that were not only fun, but also had some kind of positive subliminal message. However, one of the books I chose to read to my kids, "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak, was for fun and not any particular lesson that it might teach my kids. However, come to think of it, perhaps it did teach my kids something. That being, that even if they do something I'm unhappy with or I'm angry with them for some reason, they will always find that I still love them. That's not a bad lesson to learn in any language, if you ask me.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can't suggest that particular book to replace "The Giving Tree," because the Buzzfeed article was about books that encourage kids to be kind, and that's not exactly the point of Sendak's story. However, I noticed that one of the books they included was Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who," which actually is a good choice. Despite this, and as nice as that book is, it wouldn't have been my first Dr. Seuss choice. That would be his "The Sneetches and Other Stories," and here's why.

The book in question has four stories. The copy I bought only had two stories - The titular Sneetches story, and the last story in the collection, "What was I Scared of?" The Sneetches tells the story of two types of Sneetch - ones born with stars on their bellies and ones born without. The ones with stars thought themselves to be superior to those without, until someone comes along with a machine that can put stars on the plain-bellied Sneetches. When this outrages the original star-bellied Sneetches, he produces another machine that will remove the belly stars. With adorable humor and charming rhymes, the creatures keep putting on and taking off their belly stars until they haven't any money left to pay for the transformations. Of course, this is where they learn their lesson. That being, no one should act or feel superior to anyone else because we're all just an accident of DNA and birth, and there is nothing we can do to change that, no matter how hard we try.

The other story, "What was I Scared of" is about a person who keeps coming across a pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them. This freaks him out a little more with each encounter. However, when he finally goes full-scale panic at one meeting, the pants start to cry. It is then that he realizes that the pants were equally as scared of him, and they become friends. The point of this story is that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be afraid of people we're unfamiliar with, just because they're different. We can allay those fears if we just allow ourselves to get to know them. In these days of increased violent incidences of racism and xenophobia that comes directly out of unfounded fears, this little story speaks volumes to fight exactly these things.

To reiterate, if you're looking at Buzzfeed's list for books to buy your kids this holiday season that will help them be kinder to others, more inclusive and less fearful of other people, I cannot recommend "The Giving Tree," to be one of them. Instead, I highly recommend you get them Dr. Seuss' "The Sneetches and Other Stories," and read them both the titular story as well as "What was I Scared of," as often as possible, and thereby teach your children how to be kind and tolerant.

"The Sneetches and Other Stories," by Dr. Seuss is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or read-and-listen book), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.