Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Road Ends

Road Ends by Mary Lawson
Random House: 7/8/2014
eBook, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812995732


The New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge returns with a brilliantly layered novel about self-sacrifice, family relationships, and the weight of our responsibility to those we love.
 
Twenty-one-year-old Megan Cartwright has never been outside Struan, Ontario, a small town of deep woods and forbidding winters. The second oldest in a house with seven brothers, Megan is the caregiver, housekeeper, and linchpin of the family, but the day comes when she decides it’s time she had a life of her own. Leaving everything behind, Megan sets out for London.
 
In the wake of her absence, her family begins to unravel. Megan’s parents and brothers withdraw from one another, leading emotionally isolated lives while still under the same roof. Her oldest brother, Tom, reeling from the death of his best friend, rejects a promising future to move back home. Emily, her mother, rarely leaves the room where she dreamily dotes on her newborn son, while Megan’s four-year-old brother, Adam, is desperate for warmth and attention. And as time passes, Megan’s father, Edward, stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that his household is coming undone. Torn between her independence and family ties, Megan must make an impossible choice.
 
Nuanced, compelling, and searingly honest, Road Ends illuminates how we each make peace with the demands of love. Mary Lawson delivers compassion and heartbreak in equal measure in her most stunning novel to date.

My Thoughts:

Road Ends by Mary Lawson is a very highly recommended character study of three members of the Cartwright family, a family which is slowly, tragically falling apart.

Set in Straun, Ontario, and spanning 1966-1969, the large Cartwright family is heading for a breaking point. Lawson focuses her attention on three members of the family: Edward, Megan, and Tom.

Megan has been the caregiver, housekeeper, disciplinarian, and, really, the mother to all of her brothers for years. Her mother only wants to love and care for the babies but leaves the raising of her offspring to Meg, the second oldest and only daughter. Everyone has taken Meg for granted. Now 21 year old, Meg wants to experience life on her own and sets out to live with a friend in London. She has heard the doctor tell her mother and father no more children and she feels this is her chance to live her own life. Before she left, Meg "had started to wonder if her mother was going senile." She is sure that at 45, she can't be but was instead simply not listening to what people are telling her.

Tom, Meg's oldest brother is in the midst of a serious depression since the suicide of his life-long friend, Robert. Tom has a degree in aeronautical engineering, but he's staying in the family home in Straun, Ontario, driving a snow plow, or a lumber truck, just biding his time, reading newspapers, eating lunch at the diner, and becoming more and more closed and emotionally distant.

The father, Edward, is the manager of the local bank but he is purposefully and completely distant and isolated from his family. He eats his meals out, he stays late at the bank, he visits the library, and when home, he goes into his study and shuts the door, avoiding any responsibility or contact with his family. He never wanted the children and he expects his wife to raise them. Alternately, he is afraid if he does discipline his sons, he will become abusive like his father. He turns a blind eye to the problems around him and all the indications that something isn't quite right with Emily, his wife. Edward alternately dreams of visiting great cities and seeing treasured art work, while also reading what is left of the many years of his mother's diaries and trying to come to terms with his childhood.

Meg's arrival in England is fraught with challenges and disappointments at the beginning, but she overcomes these hurdles and with the help of a caring supervisor, manages to land a position that uses her skills at organizing and cleaning. Meg does miss her youngest brother, Adam. She sends him Matchbox cars and is hopeful that Tom will look out for him.

Back in Canada, out of his haze of depression, Tom notices that his younger brother, Adam, smells bad... and apparently has been left to go hungry with no one around to make sure he gets meals, baths, or clean clothes. His mother has had yet another baby and she is holed up in her room, with the baby, ignoring everything around her. His father is as mentally absent as Emily; both are living in their own world. Meg's absence has propelled the inevitable falling apart of the family since she was the caregiver who kept things going and organized.

This is an incredibly well written novel that is a complex character study over a few years of time in the lives of these members of the Cartwright family. While there won't be a lot of action or complex twists and turns, this is the kind of novel that those who love character studies will relish. It also has a distinctive Canadian feel to it. You sense the great burden of snow and more snow, with one blizzard following on the heels of the previous one. It reminded me of the novels of David Adams Richards, with the melancholy that seems to pervade everything. At the end, Lawson does give us a glimmer of hope, even amidst the increasing disappointments, and leaves the reader anticipating that beyond the story there is a hopeful future. It reminds me that even when bad things happen to people, ultimately good can come out of the struggles - that there is a reason for everything.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Random House for review purposes.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The City

The City by Dean Koontz
Random House: 7/1/2014
ebook, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345545930
www.deankoontz.com


New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz is at the peak of his acclaimed powers with this major new novel—a rich, multi-layered story that moves back and forth across decades and generations as a gifted musician relates the “terrible and wonderful” events that began in his city in 1967, when he was ten.
 
There are millions of stories in the city—some magical, some tragic, others terror-filled or triumphant. Jonah Kirk’s story is all of those things as he draws readers into his life in the city as a young boy, introducing his indomitable grandfather, also a “piano man”; his single mother, a struggling singer; and the heroes, villains, and everyday saints and sinners who make up the fabric of the metropolis in which they live—and who will change the course of Jonah’s life forever. Welcome to The City, a place of evergreen dreams where enchantment and malice entwine, where courage and honor are found in the most unexpected corners and the way forward lies buried deep inside the heart.

My Thoughts:

The City by Dean Koontz is a very highly recommended coming-of-age story about love, friendship and loyalty.
"In our lives, we come to moments of great significance that we fail to recognize, the meaning of which does not occur to us for many years. Each of us has his agenda and focuses on it, and therefore we are often blind to what is before our eyes."

As a much older Jonah looks back on his family and the events that happened during 1967 when he was 9 to 10 years old. It was a year that would change his life. Jonah comes from a long line of musicians. His mother, Sylvia, is a gifted singer while his grandfather, Teddy Bledsoe was a piano man. They loved jazz, big band, and swing music. Jonah himself is a piano man and getting better every day. His on and off again father, Tilton, is a loser who is never there and suspect when he is around.

"My name is Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk. From as young as I can remember, I loved the city. Mine is a story of love reciprocated. It is the story of loss and hope, and of the strangeness that lies just beneath the surface tension of daily life, a strangeness infinite fathoms in depth."

The City (which is New York City, although it is not named) is actually personified into a real person from whom young Jonas gets advice and, perhaps, a couple of visions that are meant to save him. "She said that more than anything, cities are people. Sure, you need to have the office buildings and the parks and the nightclubs and the museums and all the rest of it, but in the end it’s the people—and the kind of people they are—who make a city great or not. And if a city is great, it has a soul of its own, one spun up from the threads of the millions of souls who have lived there in the past and live there now."

The story is told from the perspective of an older and wiser Jonah looking back at his childhood, so he naturally gives his younger self more insight into what is going on than most kids his age would have. "I was already an optimist when all this happened that I’m telling you about. Although I’ll reverse myself now and then to give you some background, this particular story really starts rolling in 1967, when I was ten, the year the woman said she was the city. By June of that year, I had moved with my mom into Grandpa’s house."

Koontz's writing is superb and he is a masterful story teller. He had me engrossed in this tale from the beginning to the end. I can say that I loved this book. Jonah is a great protagonist.  I loved the character Mr. Yoshioka. Yes, the bad guys are not fully realized characters but, to me, they are as an adult would recall them, looking back armed with more knowledge and recounting the information from the point-of-view of the child he was at the time.

Where I'm speculating that some readers had a problem with The City is because it is not a horror novel, like one might expect from Koontz, and while it has suspense and some moments where you will read as swiftly as possible to find out what is going to happen, this is more of a family drama/novel of suspense where all the action leads up to an event that changed Jonah's life. I was actually hesitant to start reading The City based on the poor ratings/reviews, but, alas, that was to my own detriment.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.










Friday, July 18, 2014

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. Taylor
Akashic Books: 7/1/2014
ebook, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781617752278 

Almost everyone in town blames eight-year-old Violet Morgan for the death of her nine-year-old sister, Daisy. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night opens on September 4, 1913, two months after the Fourth of July tragedy. Owen, the girls' father, "turns to drink" and abandons his family. Their mother Grace falls victim to the seductive powers of Grief, an imagined figure who has seduced her off-and-on since childhood. Violet forms an unlikely friendship with Stanley Adamski, a motherless outcast who works in the mines as a breaker boy. During an unexpected blizzard, Grace goes into premature labor at home and is forced to rely on Violet, while Owen is "off being saved" at a Billy Sunday Revival. Inspired by a haunting family story, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night blends real life incidents with fiction to show how grace can be found in the midst of tragedy.

My Thoughts:

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. Taylor is a very highly recommended historical novel. Based on real events from the author's family, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is a novel rich in detail and historical references. Set in 1913 in the anthracite coal mining region of Wyoming Valley,  Pennsylvania, this is a novel of tragedy and hope.
 
The Morgan family is composed of Owen, the father, Grace, the mother and their two girls, nine year old Daisy and 8 year old Violet. On July 4, 1913, there is a horrible accident and Daisy is left mortally burned. As Daisy slowly dies over three days, Violet plays the piano  for her while Daisy sings hymns. The whole town blames Violet for the death of her sister and neither parent is able to set aside their own grief to comfort or console her.

Grace Morgan is already emotionally fragile and the death of her daughter pushes her into a severe depression. She has personified Grief as a real person since the death of her father when she was a child, and with each death and each miscarriage she has had, Grief has grown stronger. Daisy's death pushes Grace to the edge of the abyss and she is totally emotionally crippled.
 
Owen also takes Daisy's death hard and can't cope with Grace's depression at the same time. He turns to drinking. After he returns home drunk very late one night, he has an explosive altercation with Grace. He then leaves his family, choosing to live in a rented room above the gin mill.

In this tangle emotional miasma, Violet is left to try and deal with her grief on her own, even while the adults around her holds her responsible for the death of her sister and seemingly even  the disintegration of her family. If not for her new friend, Stanley whom with she plays hooky from school with to fish and explore, Violet would have no support system. When an older widow befriends the two, they both get a modicum of the mothering they both need. 

During this same time period the famed evangelist Billy Sunday is coming to Scranton for a huge revival meeting. The town is building a temple to prepare for the special event and attendance is expected to be high. 

As a sort of Greek chorus in the background, Taylor includes comments from the church women in sections between several chapters. Preceded by some helpful homemaking advice from the time period, the chorus of comments that follow are from the widows and spinsters who are always there, doing things for the church and keeping track of everyone's business. Perhaps they mean well, bless their hearts, but perhaps they are spreading tales and making things worse.

This is an incredibly well written novel that has the kind of historical accuracy and details that make reading historical novels a treasure. It is hard to believe based on the description, but this is also a novel of hope, grace, survival and even joy. Picked as a best summer book for 2014 by Publisher's Weekly, Barbara J. Taylor's Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is not to be missed.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Akashic Book for review purposes. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Isolation

Isolation by Denise R. Stephenson
Mill City Press: 4/1/2014
Trade Paperback, 396 pages

ISBN-13: 9781626527607
www.denisestephenson.com


Isolation depicts a bleak but recognizable future in which the fear of contagion reaches a fever pitch as a bacterial epidemic catapults the US into an apocalyptic crisis.
Touch is outlawed. Mothers like Maggie bind their infants' hands, terrified they might slip fingers into mouths. Gary, a Sterilizer, uses robots to scour the infected, avoiding all contact with human flesh. Trevor, the Chief Enforcer, watches, eager to report any and all infractions.
One inadvertent touch will change all of their lives.
My Thoughts:

Isolation by Denise R. Stephenson is highly recommended, especially because this could conceivably happen.

Isolation opens with a woman cutting her finger, just a little nick, while slicing red onions. Within a day she is dead from a bacterial infection. We hear about these cases today, although death may not come quite that quickly.  Perhaps there is a bacterial infection, like E. coli O157:H7, running rampant, causing severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Maybe the bacterial infection is a salmonella outbreak linked back to tainted spinach. Or perhaps it is Listeria. Or Staph. The point is we all hear about these cases of bacterial infections that result in death today.

But what would happen if the bacteria became more lethal?

We need bacteria to live; it helps digestion for one thing. The problem is as we use more and more antibiotics, we are creating an environment where antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria develop. We nuke food for preservation, which kills bacteria, but does that create more resistant strains? We genetically alter crops to be resistant to diseases and bacteria, but what is the outcome, the end game, of those actions?

In Isolation, Denise R. Stephenson creates a future reality where bacteria seems to be declaring war on the human race and we are fighting back by creating government bureaucracies (through  Homeland Security, NSA, etc.) to control the population and the spread of bacteria. It begins with outlawing all facial touching - don't even think about wiping your eyes, scratching your nose, etc. in a public place because chances are an enforcer will find out and there will be consequences.

AB, anti-bacterial sprays and products are the norm and  liberally used. There is no chance to build up any resistance as all bacteria are deemed bad. If there is a bacterial outbreak, citizens may be required to stay isolated indoors. Eventually all touching/human contact becomes prohibited and everyone is required to stay indoors.

Isolation follows several different characters over the years as the government becomes more and more intrusive and controlling in the attempt to stop all bacteria. Interspersed through the first half of the novel are newspaper articles that provide more informative background on what is happening and on the science behind it. The news articles were a nice way to convey information as the story and the intrusiveness of the government increases. I would mention that today many people get their news online, so some of the articles could have reflected this - but they may in the final copy of the book. Either way, the news articles were effective in helping propel the story forward.

There is a huge buildup of information and over-reactions to the bacteria at the beginning of the book and then the novel focuses on individuals and how they are coping with their brave new hyper-controlled world.

A chilling scenario that could be played out today on several levels, I enjoyed Isolation enormously.


Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the author and Premier Virtual Author Book Tours for review purposes.  

Excerpt






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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

But I Love You

But I Love You by Peter Rosch
Rosch, LLC: 5/31/2014
ebook, 282 pages
ISBN-13: 9780692210925
peterrosch.com


A successful dating service maven falls for a beautiful new client, forcing the hand of her sociopathic admirer.
On the well-intentioned dare of a friend, model and recovering addict Lisa Denton meets Alicia Lynn Wilde, Manhattan's hottest matchmaker to the city's elite and the mind behind an exclusive, very lucrative singles service built on a misguided ideal, lies, and Midwestern blue collar work ethic. Alicia's brief encounter with this new stranger quickly begins to unsettle her meticulously curated world, and throws Lisa unwittingly into a series of unsavory-possibly lethal-events already set in motion when one of Elite Two Meet's members claims to have been sexually assaulted by two high-profile clientele.
My Thoughts:

But I Love You by Peter Rosch is a highly recommended love/con story. You're just going to have to read it to figure out how that combination happens, but perhaps life is a con of some sort.

First, you know right at the start that somebody dies on August 7th in But I Love You, then the story jumps back to August 2nd and you will begin to figure out what is going to happen - or you will think you are figuring out what is going down. Yup, expect a twist or two in this wild ride of.... almost an anti-love story, but I digress.

Alicia Lynn Wilde runs the Elite Two Meet dating/single's service. Elite Two Meet is exclusive and all the members are carefully vetted by a very controlling and tightly wound Alicia and her very controlled staff.  Chris, one of the members of her service who is obsessed with Alicia, is becoming a nuisance with her constant texting and calling. Alicia is interviewing prospective customer/client Lisa and is clearly smitten/obsessed with her. Add to this garbled jumble a lot of self-medicating, many varied sycophants, some simple-minded co-conspiritors, and Rosch self-confessed love of the run-on sentence and you'll begin to see that this is not a simple love story.

Despite the run-on sentence part, Rosch is a very good writer and carries But I Love You along on that strength and the twisty plot. This is a cast of unlikeable characters with a number of obsessions, be it people, success, appearance, or the previously mentioned self-medication. I'm glad I had the time to read it in one sitting. I like one reviewer who compared it to a Shakespearean tragedy where the characters are to blame for all the mishaps that befall them. It's a train wreck waiting to happen - and Rosch lets you know from the start that the train wreck is coming. You won't be able to predict how or why, though.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the author for review purposes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
Penguin Group: 7/15/2014
ebook, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 978159420519


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has lived with her sister, Alice, for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a great friendship.
In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.
The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle.
Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle Harper Lee, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and why Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.

My Thoughts:


The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills is a highly recommended look at the life and friends of reclusive author Nelle Harper Lee.

In June, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book of 34 year old author Harper Lee. "Through the experiences of Scout, Jem, and their best friend, Dill, Lee paints a vivid picture of small-town childhood in the segregated South. She also explored complex themes in the lives of her characters, from mental illness to addiction, racism, and the limitations society imposed on women. The story of small-town childhood and racial injustice in Depression- era Alabama garnered mostly glowing reviews and stayed on the best-seller list for nearly two years. In 1961, Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Academy Award–winning 1962 film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck, became a classic in its own right."

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, (Nelle) Harper Lee never published another book. She jealously guarded her privacy and actively avoided all publicity or interviews for many, many years.

 In 2001 Mills was sent by the Chicago Tribune to Monroeville, Alabama to try to get some information about Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The classic novel was chosen to be Chicago's first book in the new One Book, One Chicago program. Mills just expected to get some background information, write about the town, and set the tone for the city wide read. After gathering all the background information, she felt she should make at least one attempt to talk to Nelle or her (at that time) 89 year older sister Alice.

The sisters both knew from people around town that Mills was there gathering information and Mills herself had sent them information concerning the One Book, One Chicago program. Much to her surprise, Alice invited her in to talk and this started an unprecedented friendship. The sisters decided to trust Mills because they were intrigued by the One Book, One Chicago program and because, from Mills various inquiries around town, they were sure she wasn't a gossip. This insight proves to be true as Mills carefully shares only what Nelle deems safe. The tone of the book is all Southern charm and information about Nelle Harper Lee is carefully disclosed without a hint of gossip or scandal.

Mills was given permission to write this book from Nelle and Alice, and that seems obvious after reading it, although there was plenty of buzz around before its publication that it was going to be another unauthorized biography. Mills slowly and gently tells the story of their developing friendship and shares many of their recollections and stories, along with those of their friends. She covers daily life with the sisters (both are now in assisted living) in Monroeville, as well as with Nelle in New York City. Some things remain off the record. She does cover Nelle's longtime friendship with Truman Capote and why she never wrote another book.

Mills struggles with lupus are as evident as Nelle's feisty personality in this charming but careful account of Nelle Harper Lee. It is not, by any measure, a full biography of Nelle Harper Lee. Mills did not get an extensive on-the-record interview. It is, however, a portrait of her life during the time Mills interviewed her and lived next door to her along with whatever stories or information Nelle chose to share.


Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book for my Kindle from the Penguin Group for review purposes. 



Monday, July 14, 2014

The Forever Man

The Forever Man by Pierre Ouellette
Random House: 7/8/2014
ebook, 340 pages
ISBN-13: 9780804177191


Portland, Oregon, was once a beacon of promise and prosperity. Now it’s the epicenter of a world gone wrong, its streets overrun by victims and hustlers, drifters and gangsters. Lowly contract cop Lane Anslow struggles to keep afloat—and to watch out for his brilliant but bipolar brother, Johnny, a medical researcher. Lane soon discovers that Johnny is part of an experiment veiled in extraordinary secrecy. But he has no idea who’s behind it, how astronomical the stakes are, or how many lives might be destroyed to make it a reality.
 
Now Johnny’s gone missing. To find him, Lane follows a twisting trail into a billionaire’s hilltop urban fortress, a politician’s inner circle, a prison set in an aircraft graveyard, and a highly guarded community where people appear to be half their biological age. Hunted by dueling enemies, Lane meets a beautiful and enigmatic woman at the center of a vast web of political and criminal intrigue. And behind it all is a sinister, desperate race to claim the biggest scientific prize of all: eternal life.

My Thoughts:


The Forever Man by Pierre Ouellette is a very highly recommended dystopian science fiction crime novel.

Set in the near future in Portland, Oregon, society has eroded into the haves and have-nots. Corruption, amoral behavior and greed have taken over. The land has broken down to sections ruled by various crime lords and the government/law enforcement is likely just as corrupt as the rogue leaders. If you have the money, you will be living in privately guarded enclaves and constantly seeking a way to extend your life through various medical procedures. If you don't have money you will be scrambling hard to find some way to get by, avoid confrontations with local bad-boy enforcers, and likely with some self-medication to try to make it all tolerable.

Lane Anslow is a contract cop in his 40's who is at the low end of the pay scale and on the verge of being considered too old for the job. Lane's brother, Johnny, is a brilliant medical researcher who has just made the break-through discovery to reverse aging that everyone seeks - but especially Thomas Zed, a man wealthy beyond imagination who wants nothing more than to live forever. Now Johnny has disappeared and it is up to Lane to save him, again. Lane must untangle what Johnny has discovered and who would be trying to kill both of them.

The Forever Man worked as a noir crime fiction novel for me, one that just happened to be set in the future. The sci-fi elements are there and believable, but it's the search and digging up information in a bleak world that really propelled the novel along and compelled me to read faster. The sci-fi elements of the world are just a given, they are just background and there as Lane tries to stay alive and figure out what has happened to Johnny and why. Lane is a great character, he has his standards, but he also knows that he may have to revise them in order to survive. His search takes him through all levels of society.

The back story of characters is developed through flashbacks, a technique that works for this novel, and I thought the character development was good. Ouellette raises some interesting questions about seeking to live forever - or beyond the Gompertz Curve - and what questions might arise with living an extremely long life. This is done embedded in the story rather than in a pushy, glaringly obvious lecturing way, something I appreciate.


Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from Random House for TLC review purposes.  


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