Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Night Sister

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon
Knopf Doubleday: 8/4/15
eBook review copy, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385538510

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon is a very highly recommended novel that combines suspense and fantasy as it explores the bonds between sisters and the downfall of keeping secrets. McMahon is swiftly becoming one of my go-to authors for the combination of consistently great writing with a compelling narrative. She delivers on both counts here.

The Night Sister opens with a horrific murder. It appears the Amy Slater has killed her family and then herself at her home. They were living in her family's house by the dilapidated buildings of what was once her family's business, the Tower Motel, in the sleepy town of London, Vermont. The only survivor is her daughter Lou, who was found hiding out on the roof of the house. 

Margot calls her older sister Piper to tell her of the tragic news and Piper flies back to Vermont to be with her sister. A photo was found with a cryptic note on it referring to the 29th room. The only problem is that the Tower Motel only had 28 rooms. But Piper and Margot were childhood friends of Amy and the three played together until they had a falling out in the summer of 1989. They know a secret they aren't sharing. Jason, who is currently on the police force in London and married to Margot, knew all three girls at that time. He knows they are hiding something, but he has secrets of his own.

The story is presented in three time periods, which are clearly indicated: 2013, 1955 or 1961, and 1989. The chapters are narrated through the voice of several different characters: Amy at the very beginning, then the story unfolds through Jason and Piper in 1989 and 2013, and Rose (Amy's mother) in the early years. Interspersed in the early years are letters Silvie, Rose's older sister, has written to Alfred Hitchcock.

While you know that the three girls discovered a terrible secret that ruined their friendship in the summer of 1989, you don't find out what the secret is until the end. McMahon grabs your attention at the beginning with the murders, and then settles in to tell her story, slowly revealing clues that aren't fully explained until the end. (Fans of Hitchcock movies may be able to spot several tie-ins to his films.) The Night Sister is a good, creepy book that held my attention from beginning to end.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Spirals in Time

Spirals in Time by Helen Scales
Bloomsbury USA, 7/21/15
eBook Review Copy, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781472911360

My Thoughts: 

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales is a very highly recommended, fascinating nonfiction book about conchology, and, honestly, who doesn't appreciate seashells? (Just a quick glance through my home makes it clearly evident that I do.) "Members of the phylum Mollusca are among the most ancient animals on the planet. Their shells provide homes for other animals, and across the ages, people have used shells not only as trinkets but also as a form of money, and as powerful symbols of sex and death, prestige and war."

Spirals in Time is not only interesting and entertaining, it is also a thoroughly engaging look at the history, biology and the scientists (and mathematicians) who study seashells, primarily mollusks. The information is presented through stories and personal experience. As author Helen Scales writes in her introduction: "This book is made up of my choice of shell stories, ones that together paint a picture of a remarkable company of animals along with some of the more offbeat, forgotten and little-known tales of how those shells have made their way into the human world."

Scales is a wonderful story teller. Her sound science and knowledge of the subject matter combined with the ability to present the information in an entertaining and engaging manner made Spirals in Time an utterly delightful and accessible book. She has some great stories to tell that just happen to pass along a bountiful amount of information.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Bloomsbury USA for review purposes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Sunrise

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop
HarperCollins: 7/7/15
Advanced Reading Copy,352 pages
Trade Paperback ISBN-13: 780062396099

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop is a highly recommended novel about three families during the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état.

Opening in the Summer of 1972, The Sunrise is set in Famagusta, Cyprus’s most glamorous Mediterranean island vacation destination. Aphroditi and Savvas Papacostas currently own the Paradise Beach, a small hotel, but are building a new luxury highrise with a nightclub, The Sunrise. Markos Georgiou is hired as the manager of the night club and soon The Sunrise is the place to go to see and be seen by European's elite.

Underlying the tranquility of the city, though, ethnic tension is mounting between the Greeks and the Turks. Violence erupts in 1974 when Greece’s coup d’état provokes a Turkish attack on  Famagusta. Forty-thousand families ended up fleeing Famagusta, leaving it deserted. The Papacostas flee to a refugee camps, while two other families, the Özkans and the Georgious, remain in the decimated city. The tension between the two families is great as one is Turkish Cypriot, while the other is Greek Cypriot. The two families take refuge in the hotel, The Sunrise. The families battle illness, hunger, fear, and their own prejudices while struggling to stay alive and protect those they love.

Even today Varosha, the southern tourist section of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, is still empty, a ghost town, barricaded by barbwire, since the coup d’état. "Glitz! Glamour! Civil war! Abandonment! That sums up Varosha, a once-ritzy beachfront resort district popular with Elizabeth Taylor and international jet-setters in the Cypriot city of Famagusta. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, it was deserted by 15,000 residents, enclosed with barbed wire and left to rot."(Modern Day Ghost Towns)

With all of Greeks economic struggles in the news recently, this is a timely historical novel. While the story is fiction, it is based upon real events. Hislop is a good writer. You can tell that she has done her research to keep the story firmly placed in the specific time in history. Clearly, what is the most interesting to Hislop is the history. Her characters are presented so she can cover the history. While this isn't necessarily bad, if you are interested in history, the characters are really secondary to the bigger story, the complicated political atmosphere, the invasion, devastating aftermath and struggle for survival. To be honest, the story does start out a bit slow so you have to give it a chance. Once it's 1974 and the the Özkans and the Georgious are left trying to survive in the city, the story begins to become more engaging. 

TLC Tour Schedule

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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Between the Tides

Between the Tides by Susannah Marren
St. Martin's Press: 7/21/15
eBook review copy, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250066732

Between the Tides by Susannah Marren is a very highly recommended debut novel about constricted lives, fragile dreams, and complacency.

Lainie Smith Morris is an artist who feels the need to be by water at all times. Water is her life's blood. She has told her four children (Tom, 14, Matilde, 12, Claire and Jack, 5 year old twins) the tale of a selkie, a woman who is really a seal, but when her seal skin is stolen by a fisherman she has to remain in human form. Her children are her only consolation. Lainie's children, especially  Matilde, think their mother may be a selkie.

Lainie gave up her burgeoning career as an artist for Charles, her surgeon husband. And while she still has time to do her art, her marriage has limited her ability to find time to work. She does love living in NYC by the Hudson River, especially knowing the ocean is so near and that they will spend their summers in Cape May.

When Charles comes home one day and announces that he has accepted the position of head of orthopedic surgery in Elliot, NJ, Lainie does not want to move away from NYC and her proximity to water and her art world connections in the city. Charles promises Lainie art studio space to buy her acceptance, while he insists that it is best for the family to move to the suburbs. After they move in, Lainie is literally a fish out of water among the aptly described Stepford wives found there.

Lainie does end up knowing the queen bee among the social hierarchy imposed on the women living in Elliot. Lainie knew Jess as a friend years ago, growing up in Cape May. But, while Jess seems outwardly to be a friend, she is really more of a frenemy with her own motives for her actions. Her husband is the head of the hospital where Charles works.

The narrative is told by Lainie and Jess in alternating passages. Marren's writing is quite good and the dual points of view work well in this novel. It is also compulsively readable and kept me hooked from start to finish. I was also annoyed and bothered and worked up over these characters. I wanted to shake all of them and tell them to snap-out-of-it. I found it stretched my credulity to see Lainie's indecisive drifting along and easy acceptance that Jess was still her friend, even when there is clear evidence that this should be suspect. Charles is a jerk, no matter how sexy. Jess's interference and involvement was over-the-top. I guess I also wanted Lainie to tell Charles right at the start, "No, I will not move." (But part of that could be due to the personal experience of constantly having to move for a husband's job while sacrificing any career of my own.)

By the time I reached the end of Between the Tides, I decided that Marren had pulled me so completely into the story and held my unwavering attention to the end that this debut novel could only be deemed very highly recommended, even though I could quibble over a few minor plot points.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of St. Martin's Press for review purposes.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Festival of Insignificance

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera
Harper: 6/23/15
advanced reading copy, 128 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0062356895

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera is a recommended, short novel about five friends and the inconsequentiality of life.

Alain, Ramon, D'Ardelo, Charles, and Caliban are friends living in Paris. While Alain obsesses over the exposed navels of young women as the new erotic/seductive zone, Ramon is strolling through the park and meets D'Ardelo who lies about having cancer and then says he wants to plan a party, using Charles to plan it and Caliban to help. There is also much discussion of Stalin.

The tile of the novel really describes it and will tell you if it is a good selection for you. It really is a novel about nothing. The book is very short, more of a novella, has no story, and very little character development. After I first read it, I had to pause before writing a review. Honestly, I didn't like the characters, and didn't see a point to the novel. The Washington Post review noted that to the unsympathetic, "The Festival of Insignificance will come across as simply inconsequential and pretentious." But then I went back to the title and pondered Kundera's thoughts some more.

Ramon tells us that, "Insignificance is the essence of existence." Moreover, Ramon insists that insignificance will set a person free, require no presence of mind, no vigilance. So we have it established that Kundera is giving us permission to just experience his novel for what it is without looking for an overriding theme or great point. It must also be noted that The Festival of Insignificance is also humorous and celebrates the absurd at times. There are keen bits of startling insight embedded within the musing and antics of these men, such as the theory about "observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another." The discussion becomes in reality two monologues. It is a novel about irrelevance, detachment, insignificance, and, yes, it is a memorial, a festival, to insignificance.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes.

TLC Tour Schedule

Thursday, July 16, 2015

All This Life

All This Life by Joshua Mohr
Soft Skull Press: 7/14/15
eBook review copy, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781593766030

All This Life by Joshua Mohr is exceptionally thoughtful, and a very highly recommended novel about our current information super highway. In All This Life Mohr takes our over exposed, interconnected lives, a tragic event, and ties together seven very different people.

The novel opens with an unnamed man pondering: "There’s one gigantic cause that no one talks about and it’s the foundation of my equation, my E = mc despaired: Human sadness is what’s heating up the earth. We are so somber, Albert, our lives are squared by despair and thus we all emit such a sad heat that our planet will torch unless we get it under control."

Then we are introduced to Paul and Jake, his son. They are driving over the Golden Gate Bridge when Jake sees a marching band. Jake likes "capturing real human life, snatching seconds away from those who don’t suspect an audience." As he films them with his phone, he captures a horrific event that leaves most of the band dead. After Jake posts his video of the event on youtube, the only video that captured the whole event from start to finish, it goes viral.

Noah, a man who lost his sister that day on the bridge has seen Jake's film online and can't believe someone would post that. He is in a world of pain and grief over his loss.

In Traurig, a small town in Nevada about an hour from Reno, Sara has just learned that her boyfriend has posted a sex tape of them online. Her cell phone is vibrating and text messages are flying. She's lost her job and it seems everyone knows about her indiscreet as the video goes viral. She turns to Rodney, an old friend who struggles to speak after an accident, and they leave together to find Rodney's mom, Kathleen (Kat), a caricaturist who lives in San Francisco. Kat left after his accident and hasn't contacted him since. She's sober now, though, and wants to reach out.

Sara ponders, "If there was a customer service center that regulated the whole information super highway she would have dialed it immediately. But it’s the wild west. Utter anarchy. No one’s really in charge, so long as you’re not trying to coerce a kid into bed or buying weapons." This is, of course, why these two videos exist online. Social media amplifies the interconnectedness of these lives. Sara watches Jake's video and he watches the one with her in it.

All these flawed and wounded characters will end up converging in a startling and dramatic conclusion. If all this makes it seem that Mohr's novel is very somber and gloomy, it isn't. There are moments of humor and there is a sense of hope at the end. 

The focus on social media and how it is used and defines people today is clearly demonstrated by Paul and Jake.

Paul, who has to "basically police his co workers, or they’ll fiddle around on Facebook all day" is concerned for his son and for the whole generation because of the way they publicize everything - "these technologies that make it seem like a good idea to share shrapnel from your life, meaningless slivers of each day." He "examines the dangerous intersection of reality and the imaginary, where coding and technology seek to highlight and augment our already flawed human connections."

Jake, though, espouses the view of his generation. He didn’t do anything wrong when posting the video of the band. "This is what people do. This is how the world works. This is why we’re smarter now: We share everything with everyone, have access to each sight and sound. We are informed and connected! If they stop living in the past, they’d plug into this broadcasting consciousness, synapses firing all over the globe." "Content is Jake’s purpose. It is everybody’s purpose. And each single frame uploaded is a public service."

After finishing All This Life, I put everything Joshua Mohr has written on my wish list. The writing was exceptional. The development of the characters, even when working with so many, is incredible. The underlying message is timely. With all our connections, have we lost sight of the value of the personal, face to face, connections? Do we propose that our social media connections are truly personal connections? Is social media truly reflecting our reality, our lives? Do we need to share everything? Is content really our purpose?

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Soft Skull Press for review purposes.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Swedes in Canada

Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants by Elinor Barr
University of Toronto Press: 7/2/15
eBook review copy, 576 pages
Trade Paperback ISBN-13: 978-1442613744

Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants by Elinor Barr is a very highly recommended definitive history of Swedish immigrants to Canada.

Barr has done exhaustive research into this very complete history of Swedes in Canada. "Since 1776, more than 100,000 Swedish-speaking immigrants have arrived in Canada from Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Ukraine, and the United States." Barr covers a wide range of topics, activities, and areas of interest, both historical and much more recent. "Active in almost every aspect of Canadian life, Swedish individuals and companies are responsible for the CN Tower, ships on the Great Lakes, and log buildings in Riding Mountain National Park. They have built railways and grain elevators all across the country, as well as churches and old folks homes in their communities. At the national level, the introduction of cross-country skiing and the success of ParticipACTION [promotes physical activity and the health and wellness of children and their families in Canada] can be attributed to Swedes." Just as in the USA, Canadian Swedes can be rather reticent to share their legacy as immigrants.

Being of Swedish descent myself, I was fascinated by this in-depth look at Swedes in Canada. Barr's research and presentation is impeccable and impressive (even with the few digs at American Swedes). I was especially impressed with how thoroughly she covered the roles of women, traditionally and historically. Honestly,  much of the societal and familial aspects of the Swedes in Canada that she presented can be seen in my own history and heritage. I found this book utterly fascinating; however, I will also readily admit that the appeal will be generally limited simple due to the topic. Swedes in Canada is a remarkable accomplishment. There is a website too:

As is my wont, I was thrilled to see the presence of a wide variety of appendices and notes, an extensive bibliography, and an index. Swedes in Canada also contains several pictures, charts, diagrams and maps in the text.
Contents include:
1. Under an Invisibility Cloak
2. Emigration from Sweden, Immigration to Canada
3. Immigrants
4. Settlement Patterns
5. Religion
6. World Wars
7. The Swedish Press
8. The Depression, Strikes and Unions
9. Earning a Living
10. A Woman’s Place
11. Swedishness in Canada
12. Links with Sweden
13. Language, Discrimination and Assimilation
14. Literature
15. Emerging Visibility
Appendices: Place Names, Firsts for Swedes in Canada; Vasa Order of America; Ambassadors; Consuls General; Consuls; Vice-Consuls; Honour the Pioneers
Bibliography (extensive)

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
University of Toronto Press via Netgalley for review purposes.