Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Doll-Master

The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates
Grove/Atlantic: 5/3/16
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802124883

The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates is a highly recommended collection of six short stories.  The stories in this collection have recently been published in other places and have been gathered together for this book. All of the stories deal with psychological terror and suspense, of a disquieting and disturbing variety, rather than a horrific gore-fest.

The six stories include:
The Doll-Master: A man began a doll collection as a child when his cousin died of leukemia.
Soldier: A man is on trial for shooting a teenager.
Gun Accident: Hanna house sits for a teacher.
Big Momma: A girl thinks she likes another family better than her own.
Equatorial: A woman suspects her husband wants to get rid of her.
Mystery, Inc.: A young man tries to buy up a bookstore.

The stories were uneven for me - while I liked most of them to various degrees, I didn't care for Soldier at all.

As mentioned by others, Oates'
signature move is to end in medias res, or in the middle of things. This abruptly ending or stopping the story with no resolution will either work for you or it won't - and it may depend upon the individual story. But, Oates is an incredibly gifted writer, with the ability to establish clear settings and great character development, and so this collection is worth your time if it only serves as a way to see if you like her short stories.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of  Grove/Atlantic for review purposes.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
Mira: 5/3/16
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778319337

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick is a very highly recommended pleasant, yet engaging,  feel-good novel.

Arthur Pepper's wife Miriam died a year ago and the 69 year old widower is missing her desperately and clinging to the routines he has made for himself. When he decides that it is time to go through her things and donate them to a charity to help cats, he discovers a gold charm bracelet hidden in a boot. Arthur can't remember seeing the bracelet before and is intrigued by the eight charms on the bracelet and what they must have represented to his late wife.

On the chain are an elephant, tiger, book, painter's palette, ring, flower, thimble and a heart. Quite by chance, Arthur discovers a phone number on the elephant charm and ends up talking to a man in India. Miriam was a nanny for his family for several months. Once he uncovers this mystery, Arthur sets off to discover what the rest of the charms meant to Miriam. Arthur has a series of surprising encounters as he searches for the meaning behind the charms. Along the way Arthur discovers more about his wife's life before they were married and even more about himself.

This is a strong, pleasing debut novel, well written and reminiscent of Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, only a bit less serious. Fans of Harold Fry will love Arthur Pepper. Patrick keeps the tone light and the story is, well, charming. Arthur is grieving for Miriam and the pain he is going through is clearly depicted, but Patrick sees him through it, to a path of recovery, even as he discovers the meaning of each charm. This is a story of an ordinary man, but also a novel of love, hope, and healing.

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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster: 5/3/16
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501124372

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave is a very highly recommended novel set during WWII.

It is 1939 and war has been declared. Privileged young socialite, Mary North leaves her Swiss finishing school and signs up to serve. She is assigned to teach at an elementary school. When her charges are evacuated to the country, she is at loose ends until she meets Tom Shaw, who runs the school district. Mary and Tom begin dating, and he has her set up a classroom for the few children who are brought back to the city. A child she is especially devoted to is Zachary, a 10 year-old black American. Mary fights prejudice, a continuing theme throughout the novel, and tries to bravely help out the war effort.

Tom Shaw's roommate, Alistair Heath, has enlisted. He has experienced the war's brutality personally in France. When he comes home on leave before being assigned to Malta, he goes out on a double date with Tom and Mary, and Mary's friend, Hilda. The attraction between Mary and Alistair is immediate, but both of them resist it. Mary remains loyal to Tom, declaring her love.

As the war progresses, the bombing of London begins and the blitz makes no one safe. Alistair goes to Malta, where he faces even more desperate conditions and dangerous encounters. Mary and Hilda both begin to write to Alistair. They also both step up their efforts to assist during the war and personal losses and stress begins to accumulate. Everyone is tested beyond their limits.

I love the title of this book. As it says, everyone brave is forgiven, should be forgiven, as they all try to do the best they can under horrendous, stressful circumstances. Perhaps they don't always do the most laudable thing, but they are all trying to be brave and should be extended grace to forgive any indiscretions or failings. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Cleave writes in the beginning note to the reader that this story was inspired by the real-life love letters between his grandparents.

The story itself is perhaps one that could be and has been told many different times and ways. What makes this effort stand out is the sheer quality of the writing - it is incredible. I was pulled into the story immediately based on the excellence of the writing. Cleave does an extraordinary, insightful job creating his characters and exploring their innermost emotions and thoughts as they face forces beyond their control and must find a way to survive them. They are not perfect;  they have flaws and shortcomings. They are real people experiencing extreme circumstances. At the same time Cleave perfectly captures and describes the setting and the situations the characters find themselves experiencing.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Simon & Schuster for review purposes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Revelation Code

The Revelation Code by Andy McDermott
Random House: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101965290
Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase Series #11

The Revelation Code by Andy McDermott is a highly recommended action/adventure thriller that is addictively entertaining.

As the eleventh book in the series featuring American archaeologist Nina Wilde and ex-SAS bodyguard Eddie Chase, most fans of the series are going to know the characters by now and understand that the action will be non-stop. "Yes, you two do seem to be an almost magnetic draw for megalomaniacs, murderers, and terrorists." Exactly!

This time Ezekiel Cross is a cult leader who thinks he has unlocked the secret of the four angels in the Bible's Book of Revelation. He has one angel, now he is searching for the other three and needs Nina's (uncooperative) help to find them. Nina is kidnapped and whisked away to the cult's secret location. Eddie is captured and held in another place, to be tortured on camera to secure Nina's continued cooperation with Cross.

Cross is a formidable opponent, but he doesn't quite know what he's up against with Nina and Eddie.

These characters are well developed at this point and their personalities are clear. There is action, but also expect humor.
"You should put all this stuff in a book," said Nina, not willing to be convinced, even though she couldn’t fault his logic. "There’s always a huge market for explanations of the Bible. Call it The Revelation Code or something, I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller."

The Revelation Code succeeds as an action/adventure thriller with a smart plot, great pacing, an evil psychotic bad guy, and globe trotting action. McDermott does an excellent job developing the plot and keeping your interest as the story unfolds.

There were two issues I had with The Revelation Code. McDermott continues to attack American evangelical Christians, which gave me several eye-rolling moments. That specific target is getting a bit old and over-played now. I wish he'd move on to a new group of evil people. But this is fiction, so I'm choosing to overlook that glaring annoyance. The other issues concerns the fact that Nina's pregnant this time around, which she mentions often. This was bothersome to some readers, but since she's a first time pregnant woman I'm choosing to to overlook her obsession with reminding everyone all the time that she is pregnant.

This is a
stuck-overnight-at-the-airport book. It will keep you awake and entertained right to the end.

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Girl Who Stayed

The Girl Who Stayed by Tanya Anne Crosby
Story Plant: 4/19/16
advanced reading copy; 292 pages
ISBN-13: 9781611882230

The Girl Who Stayed by Tanya Anne Crosby is a recommended contemporary novel of suspense.

Zoe Rutherford may ostensibly be on Sullivan's Island to clean and fix up her parents' house, which has been rented out for years, in order to sell it. She, along with her younger brother Nick, has stayed away from the house for years. But in reality she has been running away from the house and all it represents for years. It is where her family was living when her younger sister, Hannah, disappeared without a trace. It is where she endured her father's verbal and emotional abuse. It is where she witnesses her mother's withdrawal into herself. Zoe's latest- and last - violent fight with her boyfriend/abuser Chris gave her the impetus to leave him and finally do something about the house.

While there she has to face a plethora of emotions related to her father's cruelty, Hannah's disappearance, and her rocky unhealthy relationship with Chris. These are the three things that keep swirling around Zoe's head, repeatedly, obsessively, occasionally with added details. Her father never liked her. let alone loved her. His abuse became more pronounced when Zoe was 10 and Hannah 8. That is when Hannah went missing. Nick, who was 6 at the time, seems to have been immune to the abuse. Zoe still obsesses over her missing sister, an event that occurred thirty years ago, and the lack of closure.

Zoe's relationship with Chris is related to her poor self-esteem and search for love and acceptance no matter the cost, all traits that started being developed when she lived on Sullivan's Island. Now Zoe has a scar/wound on her forehead that was inflicted by Chris as she was leaving. She worries about people seeing it and wondering what caused it. A lot. She has a difficult time connecting to people. She has traumatic memories that haunt her still and some she may be suppressing.

Crosby does a wonderful job with the setting and creating the character of Zoe. I did find some of the repeated obsessing (over the scar, Hannah, Chris, her father) to be tiresome after so much reiteration. I also wondered why Zoe had such a hard time after therapy for years coming to terms with at least a few of her issues. On the other hand Crosby slowly has Zoe provide more information about bits and pieces of her childhood and her current relationship with Chris throughout the whole novel. It is also understandable that going to the island after being gone for so many years would bring back memories you thought you had banished or handled years before.

When the end comes it is startling and surprising enough to overcome some of the problems I had with The Girl Who Stayed. Up until the end there were really no startling surprises; however, the pacing was even and there were enough new facts disclosed along the way that it kept my interest. This would be a good airport or vacation book. It will keep your attention and entertain you

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

Friday, April 22, 2016

City of Secrets

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan
Penguin Publishing Group: 4/26/16
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670785964
City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan is a very highly recommended novel about the Jewish underground resistance in Jerusalem after the Second World War.

In 1945, immediately following World War II, Jewish refugees had no place to go and tens of thousands set out for Palestine, but Jerusalem is under British occupation and control. The British have check points and actively search for any refugee there illegally. The refugees have forged papers, new identities, and try to fit in with the local population to escape arrest.

Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jew, is a survivor of the Holocaust and a refugee. He lost his whole family and beloved wife. Now Brand is driving a taxi in Jerusalem, as a cover for his involvement in the resistance group Haganah. Their goal, along with other resistance groups, is to drive the British out of Palestine and establish a Jewish state.

One of Brand's jobs is to drive fellow resistance member and survivor Eva to assignations as a prostitute. Her job is to gather information. In their off-hours, Brand and Eva are lovers. Even though they have said they will not fall in love, this relationship fills Brand with guilt. He feels like he is betraying his wife and is haunted by memories of the past.

Brand plays a small part in his resistance cell lead by a man called Asher. Members are secretive, even with each other, and information is on a need-to-know basis. The loyalty of the members is often in question within the group. As the danger seems to loom larger and the resistance efforts become more daring, Brand continues to follow Asher's plans, but begins to suspect that he is being used - a small cog in bigger plans.

Brand is a lonely, woeful man of few words. He ponders events of the present and past. He is tortured by his survival. He wants to be the good, honest man he was at one time. He has found himself part of a movement where he has no control. This dark, noirish novel is one of intrigue, certainly, but at its heart it is a much more poignant novel of one man's struggle to make sense of all the brutal parts of his life that have stripped him of so much. He has been left with the skills he possesses. He keeps track of where he is and how to get through the city. He is a good mechanic.

O'Nan is a masterful writer. The prose is sparse, precise; many details are implied and some rely on an understanding of history and how it repeats itself, often with similar actions wrapped in different verbiage. This is the story of one man, but the moral implications and questions it raises are profoundly tied into humanity itself. This is a novel that you will remember not for its verbose prose, but its depiction of one man who survived the unthinkable to find himself in a specific place during a chaotic period of time.

I simply can't quite explain the quiet strength of this novel. Don't look at the number of pages. This is a perfect novel for those who enjoy historical fiction, as the setting is well researched and the characters are perfectly placed in this specific time and place. But it is ultimately about so much more. This is a memorable novel and one that will stay with you after you have read it.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group for review purposes.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Art of Calm

The Art of Calm: Photographs and Wisdom to Balance Your Life
by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
National Geographic Society: 3/29/16
hardcover; 215 pages
ISBN-13: 9781426216374

The Art of Calm: Photographs and Wisdom to Balance Your Life by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh is a highly recommended book with a perfect balance of photographs and inspirational quotes, good advice, and even recipes. This is the kind of book you would give a good female friend, using the ribbon page marker to mark an especially pertinent quote or tip for her, to let her know you understand, value, and treasure her.

Actually, I'd have to make many more ribbon page markers beyond the one affixed to the spine of the book. There were so many good quotes and wonderful advice.

I love: "Women need real moments of solitude and self-reflection to balance out how much of ourselves we give away." Barbara De Angelis (pg. 21)
I could mark the quote: "When you feel overwhelmed repeat this to yourself until you remember that it is true: You'll get it all done. You always have."(pg. 46)
I especially love: "After all those years as a woman hearing 'not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not this enough, not that enough' almost overnight I woke up one morning and thought, 'I'm enough.' "  Anna Quindlen (pg. 184)
Or I'd  marked for myself that peace is found in forgiveness, or celebrating what people accomplish rather than finding fault, or how I'm are not responsible for other adults emotional lives or...
You get the idea.

But I'd likely put that one affixed ribbon marker where it is now: "Start with this thought, every morning, even when your alarm goes off too early: Every day is a gift." (pg. 202)

There are also included wonderful little tidbits of goodness, like recipes included for a facial, and bath salts, and vanilla milk, and tips about what you should have on your bookshelf or in your closet or stocked in your pantry for a quick pasta dinner. There are several pages that give supportive advice to working women and mothers with children.  Or maybe I'd mark the page letting my friend know that sometimes it is okay to eat chocolate chip cookies.

Let's not forget the photographs either. They simply exude serenity and help encourage a calm, peaceful, soothing demeanor. They are gorgeous and compliment the text that accompanies them splendidly. 
The Art of Calm would be a sublime gift for others - or yourself! (And it's paperback sized, so it would easily slip into a bag to take with you!)

I'll leave you with this advice that made me laugh with delight: "Make a playlist of your favorite songs from high school and sing along at the top of your lungs while you remember what it was like the have real problems." (pg 207) Yes!

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
 Rebecca Ascher-Walsh for review purposes.