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 naiveté 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.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Elizabethian Fury in a Modern Female

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

In Anne Tyler's latest book, she takes on the task of modernizing Shakespeare's play "The Taming of the Shrew." To remind you, the original story is a simple one: Baptista has two beautiful daughters, the younger one is the sweet Bianca, and the older one is the hotheaded Katherine. Bianca is in love with Lucentio, but her father will not allow her to marry before her older sister Katherine. The problem is who would want to take on such a difficult woman as Katherine to be their wife? Enter Petruchio, who decides to take on the task of taming and wedding her, and so the comedy begins. (As an aside, I have to admit that the idea that someone would have to tame a woman to make her marriageable is hardly a feminist theme. However, the more you study the ending of his original play, you may find the Bard was actually suggesting that the "taming" wasn't wholly one-sided - but that's for another discussion altogether.)

There have been several attempts to modernize this play, but only two of them got any traction. One was the 1948 Samuel and Bella Spewack Broadway production with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, called "Kiss Me, Kate." This musical used the original play as the background for a play-within-a-play, which has a similar, real-life problematic relationship between the leading actors. This was later adapted for the big screen in 1953 under the same name (with some amazing dance scenes staring the incomparable Bob Fosse). This version also included a sub-plot where Bianca's love interest (both on and off stage) is less than reputable.

The second was the film "10 Things I Hate About You," starring Julia Stiles as Kat (Katherine) and the late, great Heath Ledger in the
Petruchio role, here renamed as Patrick Verona. (The TV series spin-off of this film only aired for one season, making it ultimately forgettable.) In this version, marriage isn't the problem; rather, the sisters' father won't let the younger Bianca date until her older sister Kat is dating first. As absurd as this may seem, it actually works because of the well-written dialogue (in particular, the titular poem that Kat writes), and several excellent acting performances.

Tyler seems to have taken one or two pages from both these, while adding some bits of her own. In Tyler's 21st century version, Kate (again) and Bunny's (Ah!) father is Dr. Battista who is far more involved in his research project to pay much attention to his two girls, let alone be strict with them. While he doesn't want Bunny dating or hanging around with boys unsupervised, that's because she's only 15. That has nothing to do with Kate's social life or lack thereof, and Kate is the primary person enforcing this rule. The problem that needs solving in Tyler's version is Dr. Battista's; his research may finally be getting somewhere, but he desperately needs his foreign-born lab assistant Pyotr to achieve that long-illusive breakthrough. Unfortunately, Pyotr's visa is about to run out. With possible deportation in the offing, the only quick-fix solution Battista can think of is to get Pyotr married to an American citizen, and Kate is his obvious choice.

What Tyler took from the musical was the sub-plot of the love interest for the younger daughter, and his less than honorable character. This worked well when Tyler matched it up with the no-dating rule from "10 Things." Here Bunny's "tutor" seems to be hanging around far more than needs be, but as suspicious as Kate is, she can't fully object unless they meet behind her back. Tyler also successfully employed the contradictory aspects of the fathers from both versions, in that Battista is both strict in his household rules on the one hand, while at the same time, his overt self-absorption means he practically ignores both his daughters most of the time.

That aside, the most important element of any version of Shakespeare's "Shrew" is the bit about taming this woman. For that to work properly, we need a character who is bluntly honest (even to the point of being rude), unapologetic regarding her actions and unmovable regarding what others may say or think about her. She also has to be independent to the point of selfishness, in that she wants nothing from anyone (and men in particular) whatsoever. However, underneath it all, just like every other human being, she has a heart; she simply needs the right someone to come along and unlock it. 

And... here's the rub! While Tyler succeeds with the latter, I'm afraid that she doesn't quite make her Kate shrewish enough for us to believe she needs much in the way of taming. This leads to a bland conclusion to the novel, which I found disappointing and not as funny as I was hoping it would be. Tyler also added some extra, post-taming scenes that I found unnecessary, since I think the point she was trying to make with those parts should have come earlier in her story. Despite this, I still found this a fun read, mostly because I have always admired Tyler's writing style, and I love her eye for finding the humor and absurdities in human nature. Unfortunately, as a re-imagining of this beloved Shakespeare play, for me it fell short, and I can only give it three and a half out of five stars. (Don't worry, Anne - I forgive you, and I still love you!)

"Vinegar Girl" by Anne Tyler 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 (promoting literacy, libraries and recycling) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Guest Author Post: Shoshanah Shear on "Healing Your Life Through Activity"

Since I don't often read/review non-fiction, I am pleased to have the privilege to present you with this guest author post about a book that sounds both helpful and fascinating.

The Story behind Healing Your Life Through Activity - An Occupational Therapist's Story

by Shoshanah Shear

Shortly after high school, I went to a career guidance counselor. After discussing my high school subjects and activities, she recommended that I study occupational therapy. She offered no explanation of what occupational therapy is, only that in her opinion, she believed I should study occupational therapy. Personally, I loved art. Yes I did study science too, but my main love was art. I really wanted to become an artist of some kind. I often thought I would love to study photography in-depth, or I could become a jeweler, an illustrator, designer or even a landscape gardener or horticulturalist. I love beauty and I love creating in all kinds of mediums. For me, any of these careers combine, art, beauty, science and giving to others.

My grandfather though, insisted that occupational therapy was a better career choice. Art, he said, is for when one retires! Actually, he knew quite a lot about occupational therapy, though I did not know it at the time. Somehow, it took many years before I learned just how much my grandfather knew of OT.

My paternal grandfather had died before my father was born and my father died when I was still at school. My maternal grandfather, therefore, was an important father figure in my life and I wished to live up to his expectations for me. Interestingly, the more I studied OT, the more the profession made so much sense. It began to inspire me and fill me with a desire to develop a center offering the best of what the profession is about. I also discovered that all the other professions that I could have studied were included in this one, in OT.

I was doing well in my studies when I developed a chronic illness in the middle of my third year of studying. Though I managed to graduate with my class, earning became a challenge as my income was shared with paying off my tuition and paying for healthcare. When I had been a qualified OT for 7-8 years, the affirmative action in South Africa affected my finding work. Due to my health together with the job situation, I began to explore working privately. It was not long until I met with a very great challenge. Not only was I trying to market myself on a very, very tight budget, but the lack of recognition and understanding of the profession was having a very negative effect on my ability to obtain clients.

Around this time, I began to work with two different families. The fathers were very impressed with what OT offered to their children and family and encouraged me to write a book to educate both the lay person and health professionals about occupational therapy. One of the fathers in particular was adamant that if parents understood what OT can offer their children, they would certainly insist that their doctor refer. He was very upset that his child had waited a number of years before they stumbled upon OT. His distress was heightened after I wrote a progress report for their pediatrician followed by a meeting only to hear that the doctor had not referred as he had no idea that OT could offer the child what was described in the report.

After some thought, I began to write the book with ideas to follow it up with talks and workshops to promote the profession. I submitted the manuscript to over 50 publishers who all turned it down. Some time passed and I found myself helping my mother to self-publish a teenage novel. This experience was the key I needed to open the door to seeing this book come to print. As I began to prepare the book for self-publication, the book changed and evolved until it became the book it is today.

When discussing the book with a colleague, she suggested that the book needed a dedication. After due consideration, I decided the most suitable dedication would have to be to my late grandfather. If not for him, I never would have become an OT or persevered whenever things got tough. Once the dedication was in place, I decided to add some words of my grandfather's work in assisting the disabled population of South Africa. Through writing up this section I came to appreciate exactly how much of an impact my grandfather's work had on the developing profession of OT from post WW2 onward. My grandfather's work provided inspiration and motivation for me and others on many levels. Being able to share some of this in my book is exciting for me. In the end, promoting occupational therapy has become a perfect solution to a frustrating problem and a prefect way to bring merit to my beloved grandfather.

Shoshanah Shear is an occupational therapist, healing facilitator, certified infant massage instructor, freelance writer and co-author of Tuvia Finds His Freedom and author of Healing Your Life Through Activity - An Occupational Therapist's Story, which is available from the CreateSpace eStoreAmazon US and Amazon UK.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Structures of Love

To Capture what we Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin

From a hot-air balloon above the future site of the 1889 Paris fair grounds, Émile Nouguier one of the architects and engineers working with Gustav Eiffel, looks down at the place where their tower will soon be built. With him in the basket is Catriona (Cait) Wallace, the chaperone to two young siblings from Scotland, Alice and Jamie Arrol, whose uncle William is a renowned engineer in their home country. This chance meeting is what sparks the chain of events in this captivating historical fiction novel, where Beatrice Colin carefully mingles facts with fictional romances.

Obviously, Colin had her hands full to properly balance this book, in order to avoid too much romance. To begin with, it did seem practically every one of the main characters got involved in some kind of relationship. Of course, there's no problem problem with that, especially if can we get enough intelligence and history mixed in with the secrets, scandals and bedroom scenes. Thankfully, Colin successfully sifted these issues together using several methods that allowed this novel to remain solidly within the historical fiction and literary genres.

One of these was Colin's research into both of the real-life personalities of Arrol and Nouguier. Obviously, Colin chose these two not only for their both being engineers at the time, but also because the gaps in their personal biographies allowed Colin to fill them easily with fictionalizing. A quick check finds both Nouguier's bachelor status and his collaboration with Eiffel. Documents show both Arrol's childlessness and his leaving his fortune and company to nephews (and nieces), attesting to his devotion to them. Certainly, these two must have at least known about the other, so Colin's leap to having Arrol request an apprenticeship for Jamie with Nouguier isn't a huge one. The idea that the eligible Alice might be a possible match for Nouguier also doesn't seem farfetched. The other hurdle was connecting Cait to the whole scheme. Finding a woman in need of employment to chaperone these two makes perfect sense. That this particular woman's husband died in the collapse of one of Arrol's bridges, gave Colin the notion that Arrol chose her for this position out of guilt. I liked these assumptions, and felt they set the story up for all the important elements very nicely.

Another way Colin balanced the romance was with the facts surrounding the construction of the Eiffel Tower. By preserving the process of building the tower for the story's timeline, and inserting the real people involved, Colin distributes many of the real obstacles and dilemmas from this project into the narrative, together with interesting bits of trivia. For example, Colin speaks about the number of bolts required for the project, and the precision needed to make each one identical in order to ensure the structure's stability. Furthermore, Colin strikingly describes the fretful day they positioned the cross-platform, which was the piece of the puzzle that stabilized the initial four angled legs of the tower. Colin's probably didn't need too much imagination to figure out how that scenario probably unfolded, nor that Nouguier's apprehensions about the technical aspects of that day would intensify his feelings about his personal drama. These are the things that lifted Colin's book from being a mostly (tame) romance novel and into the realm of literary, historical fiction.

The extra treat here was Colin's gently flowing prose, which avoided being bombastic in its sophistication. The moderate poetic feel of some of Colin's interludes describing the scenery and settings, usually worked well without sounding clichéd. This meshed well with the language Colin's employed that contributed to the atmosphere overall, and felt fitting for the era of the story.

After all this, you might be surprised that I'm not giving a full five stars to this book. The reason for this is that what I felt was missing was the "wow factor." My thinking is that perhaps Colin held back a little, and that somehow lessened the buildup of drama that a punchy climax requires. This also made the conclusion feel slightly flat and lacking in energy. Despite this one niggle, Colin did a commendable job with this book, her characters were believable as well as sympathetic, her plot was compelling, her language fit the settings perfectly, and she carefully mixed fiction with fact. This is what I believe most readers will focus upon, and I can recommend it with four and a half stars out of five.

"To Capture what we Cannot Keep" by Beatrice Colin, released by Flatiron Books, November 29, 2016 (US) is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, 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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An Elmwood Springs Retrospective

The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg

Flagg's latest novel returns once again to Elmwood Springs and this time, she tells us everything, starting with its humble beginnings, when young Lordor Nordstrom finds this beautiful spot in Missouri, and decides to make his home there. From there Flagg takes us on a journey of joys and tears, from the late 19th century, through into the year 2020. This includes a nod to Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" with narratives from the dearly departed of the town from their graves, and then some.

One reviewer called Flagg's books "comfort reading" and I have to agree with them.* There is little one can fault in Flagg's stories. Her writing is charming and witty, her characters are varied and interesting, and her settings are picturesque. Yes, in this novel, we do see some of the less seemly sides of rural America, but most of that is near the end of the book, as Flagg progresses into present day. Despite that, with this book, Flagg's innovation of the quasi-magical reality of the dead communing in the town's graveyard turns even death into pictorial adventure, even when it comes under disrepair.

That aside, as I read this, I began to wonder if there wasn't something somewhat political in Flagg publishing this book at this particular time. The reason for my feeling this is that Flagg has given us not just a retrospective of this fictional town she loves so well, but also an overview of small-town and rural America. The political aspect comes in where she shows us just how much of a toll some things about the last several decades have had on these parts of the country. It was almost as if Flagg was trying to show us that progress isn't always such a good thing. In fact, Flagg seems to have presented us with the reasons why there are people across the country who feel left behind. This isn't to say that Elmwood Springs doesn't evolve with the times. Still, some of the advances it witnesses do make it into something practically unrecognizable to the founding families. Flagg reminds us that sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes it isn't.

However, what Flagg doesn't give us is the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that has been rampant during this recent election campaign. Instead, she gives us a group of people who, for whatever their reasons, end up together in the same place. Some people seem to struggle for no reason, while others seem to bring their difficulties upon themselves. For the most part, those that prosper do so with grace, together with a sense that this community is not only a place to call home, but also their responsibility to help maintain as best as possible, together with their fellow citizens. Although they aren't very heterogeneous, they do seem to judge people on their characters and actions rather than where they come from, and that feels good.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that this novel is most poignant because of the lessons we can learn from it. On the one hand, Flagg is telling us that rural America is slowly dying, and we shouldn't reject the nostalgia that comes with this. On the other hand, Flagg is also telling us that we must keep hold of our humanity and compassion, so we can continue to help each other when we stumble, and that will allow us to celebrate together when we succeed, as well. That Flagg does this in such a beguiling, humorous and touching way, while avoiding schmaltziness is what makes this book worthy of five out of five stars, and I'm warmly recommending it.
* PS: With the results of the US elections now known, I wanted to add the following thought. Flagg made my heart ache for what the many Elmwood Springs of America have lost over the past few decades. Unfortunately, I can only fear for them, because I truly doubt that this decision is going to make things better for them, and it could make things worse. Now, I'm not so sure how comforting this book is, but that won't change my rating.

"The Whole Town's Talking" by Fannie Flagg, published by Random House, for release November 29, 2016 is available (for pre-order) 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, October 29, 2016

Perfecting your Good-bye

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman

Stock up on tissues folks, because Fredrik Backman is BACK! This time, Backman gives us a perfectly formed, exquisitely developed novella (whose title is almost longer than the book itself) about a man slowly succumbing to dementia and his relationship to his grandson Noah. Together, these two go on a journey of remembering and forgetting, of fantasy and reality, where Noah's father, Ted (Grandpa's son) and Grandpa's wife drift in and out of the story.

If you've ever had someone close to you suffer and die from Alzheimer's, you might think that this book would be too painful to read. However, my father died of Alzheimer's and although I found myself moved to tears throughout this book, I also found it to be very comforting. This is mostly due to Backman reimagining his Land-of-Almost-Asleep from his second novel, "My Grandmother" with a similar idea for Grandpa and Noah.

This time, instead of building a fantasy, fairy-tale world, with creatures, villains and superheroes, Backman creates a type of shared dream where Grandpa and Noah can connect. This is an imaginary space, described as a square (as in "an open area surrounded by buildings in a town, village, or city," and not the geometric shape), which holds images and places from Grandpa's memories and past, including his dead wife. You may notice that the three generations here, Noah, Ted and Grandpa, also sounds somewhat similar to the triangle of female characters in Backman's "My Grandmother." This parallel didn't bother me, particularly because in "My Grandmother" most of the action takes place after the grandmother dies. This story, however, is about people making their way together towards an inevitable end.

What makes this so comforting is the idea of connecting two people - metaphorically, of course - together with the bits and pieces that remain of the Grandpa's memories. Some of the most touching of passages are when Grandpa is talking with Grandma or thinking of her, and then talks to Noah about her. Some of the saddest parts are when we realize that the square keeps getting smaller, along with Grandpa's losing of his memories, along with Noah's difficulty in accepting or understanding what is happening. Together, these made me feel like, despite the fact that forgetting things causes confusion and even anger in reality; maybe there are still those times when the best things from a person's live are still alive somewhere within those slowly fading synapses.

While all this sounds fascinating, what keeps this from becoming maudlin and makes it so incredible is the ethereal quality Backman instills in this little story, combined with the quiet, gentle poetry that practically floats across this narrative from beginning to end. (Oh, and by the way, that ending is so so subtle it will astound you). This is where Backman shines, and makes you want to reach out and hug him for allowing us to revel in his talent (and in the blessing that is his translator) with each new story. Unquestionably, this book deserves a full five stars, and I cannot recommend it more heartily than that.

"And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer" by Fredrik Backman, released November 1, 2016 by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, iTunes (iBook), 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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Gathering of Stories

November Storm: A Collection of Short Stories by Robert Oldshue.

The Iowa University Press describes this Iowa Short Fiction award winner of 2016, as follows:

In each of the stories in Robert Oldshue’s debut collection, the characters want to be decent but find that hard to define. In the first story, an elderly couple is told that delivery of their Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled due to an impending blizzard. Unwilling to have guests but nothing to serve them, they make a run to the grocery, hoping to get there and back before the snow, but crash their car into the last of their neighbors. In “The Receiving Line,” a male prostitute tricks a closeted suburban schoolteacher only to learn that the trick is on him. In “The Woman on the Road,” a twelve-year-old girl negotiates the competing demands of her faith and her family as she is bat mitzvahed in the feminist ferment of the 1980s. The lessons she learns are the lessons learned by a ten-year-old boy in “Fergus B. Fergus,” after which, in “Summer Friend,” two women and one man renegotiate their sixty-year intimacy when sadly, but inevitably, one of them gets ill. “The Home of the Holy Assumption” offers a benediction. A quadriplegic goes missing at a nursing home. Was she assumed? In the process of finding out, all are reminded that caring for others, however imperfectly—even laughably—is the only shot at assumption we have.

This blurb is an excellent overview and assessment of this collection, and I believe that commonality in a book of short fiction helps give an overall cohesiveness to the book, which sometimes allows for a collection to almost feel like a novel (or in this case, due to its length, a novella). However, despite this underlying theme, Oldshue gives us stories that are for the most part, very different one from the other. In this way, Oldshue investigates several different aspects of what wanting to be decent is, for various types of characters. I found that totally commendable, as well as fascinating, and something Oldshue fully succeed in achieving.

Content and theme aside, the question is, was Oldshue successful in mastering the art form of the short story. I have always believed that the shorter (and/or more restrictive, and/or more concise) the form, the harder it is to accomplish. On the surface, Oldshue's style seems be one where the narrator goes off into tangents and back-stories, which seem unrelated to the story's main point. Fortunately, Oldshue has perfected the knack of slipping back to the main story at just the right moment before he's lost the plot. Shortly after that, Oldshue gives us a closing line that seems to be slightly on the obscure side, but after you think about it, is actually very pointed. While some may think this a cliché for the short story form, if executed properly, this can really work magically well, and I think Oldshue has this down pat.

Another thing that impressed me was the everyday language and seemingly casual voice, that Oldshue employs here. Using this, Oldshue speaks to the hearts of his readers, giving us a witty anthology, which at turns is both poignant and insightful. Finally, Oldshue also succeed in rendering both male and female voices for his protagonists, with natural realism. More importantly, Oldshue even portrays young people without making them sound either too childish or excessively precocious. This is one of my pet peeves, and I'm always pleased to read fiction that doesn't fall into either of those traps.

The only problem I had with this collection was that while most of the stories were very compelling, others didn't quite match that quality, and rambled on for a little too long. In particular, I wasn't sure I understood why Oldshue included some of the action in the story "Fergus B. Fergus," which slowed the pace too much for my taste, and some of it didn't seem to connect with the story's point. In addition, in "Summer Friend," we get two main protagonists plus another important minor one. This larger cast of characters proved problematic and I think he should have given us just a little less of their back-stories, which would have made this story more effective. However, these are my only niggles, so I can assure you that I still recommend this collection and believe it deserves four and a half stars out of five.

"November Storm" by Robert Oldshue published by Iowa University Press, released October 1, 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 an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Women witnessing WWII

The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

Near the end of When World War II, journalists and photojournalists from allied countries had only one thing on their minds - to be the first ones to document the victory of retaking Paris. Among them were women who braved life and limb to "make their careers" by achieving this feat. Meg Waite Clayton's latest novel follows two fictional women attempting to be the first journalists to chronicle this allied victory.

Okay, so I'm a sucker for books about women doing amazing things, or being strong and forthright during times when people expected them to be demure and pretty, in the background. This is exactly that type of book. Waite Clayton follows two women here - Olivia (aka Liv or Livvie) and Jane. These two women are very different. Olivia comes from privilege and money, while Jane is the daughter of a cook and servant to a wealthy family. Despite this, they find themselves together in France, Liv with her cameras and Jane with her typewriter, trying to cover what they hope will be the end of the war. 

One thing that struck me about this story was that Waite Clayton decided to invent two fictional characters for this novel, instead of fictionalizing real women who actually joined their male colleagues in chronicling these historical events. Of course, Waite Clayton does disburse quotes from both male and female journalists and photojournalists from this time into the text, as well as refer to them from time to time, but we hardly ever get to "meet" any of these real people inside her story. The disadvantage of doing this is that the story felt less connected to the reality of the events, if only somewhat. On the other hand, the advantage is that this freed Waite Clayton to expand her imagination to its fullest. {NOTE - see update below}

The question is, which one makes for a more compelling novel - something where the fiction imagines scenarios for real people using facts, or something where the facts of an era intertwine with fictional characters? The former requires much more research, since the author needs understand both the circumstances they're writing about, as well as the real-life people in the story - even when they're fictionalizing events meant to fill in the blanks of the records. The latter still requires some research, but the author can delve more into creating their characters while allowing them do things that no real historical person actually did. As far as I'm concerned, I think I prefer the former.

However, even though she employed the latter, I believe that Waite Clayton did a truly lovely job with this novel. She created extremely sympathetic characters and placed them into a plot that was both complex and realistic enough to make us anxious to read on to see what happened to them. Her straightforward style has just the right amounts of imagery to help the reader feel connected to the places and events, without feeling overwhelmed. In fact, some of the scenes are amazingly vivid and realistic, but thankfully, they stop just short of being gory. Most importantly, all these elements connect carefully to make the overall feel of this book both three dimensional and honest. For all this, I think I can easily recommend this novel with a strong rating of four and a half out of five stars. 

UPDATE: You will see in the comments below one from the author. She wrote:
The answer to why fictional characters is that I wanted to be able to collect a lot of different experiences from a lot of different journalists, and share the most compelling in one story. Quite sure I did far more research on this one than I would have needed to do to deliver the story of any one of the journalists mentioned in the front, for which the novel is definitely meant to be an homage. 
My reply to this is - excellent point! It didn't occur to me that Waite Clayton used many real women, and then made them into composites to develop these two characters. I therefore stand corrected. This type of approach certainly needs as much, if not more research than just designing totally fictional characters and placing them into real, historic situations.  Thank you, Meg, for that clarification.

"The Race for Paris" by Meg Waite Clayton published by Harper, released August 2015 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.

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