Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
Random House: 4/22/2014
Hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385335775
elizabethmccracken.com/books/


From the author of the beloved novel The Giant’s House—finalist for the National Book Award—comes a beautiful new story collection, her first in twenty years. Laced through with the humor, the empathy, and the rare and magical descriptive powers that have led Elizabeth McCracken’s fiction to be hailed as “exquisite” (The New York Times Book Review), “funny and heartbreaking” (The Boston Globe), and “a true marvel” (San Francisco Chronicle), these nine vibrant stories navigate the fragile space between love and loneliness. In “Property,” selected by Geraldine Brooks for The Best American Short Stories, a young scholar, grieving the sudden death of his wife, decides to refurbish the Maine rental house they were to share together by removing his landlord’s possessions. In “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey,” the household of a successful filmmaker is visited years later by his famous first subject, whose trust he betrayed. In “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston,” the manager of a grocery store becomes fixated on the famous case of a missing local woman, and on the fate of the teenage son she left behind. And in the unforgettable title story, a family makes a quixotic decision to flee to Paris for a summer, only to find their lives altered in an unimaginable way by their teenage daughter’s risky behavior.
 
In Elizabeth McCracken’s universe, heartache is always interwoven with strange, charmed moments of joy—an unexpected conversation with small children, the gift of a parrot with a bad French accent—that remind us of the wonder and mystery of being alive. Thunderstruck & Other Stories shows this inimitable writer working at the full height of her powers.

My Thoughts:

Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken is a very highly recommended collection of nine short stories. Oh my goodness - read this exquisitely crafted collection!

McCracken’s short stories in this collection include:


Something Amazing - one mother grieves the loss of her daughter years before while another has two delinquent sons
Property - a man moves into a rented house thinking it was furnished with the owner's discarded possessions.
Some Terpsichore -  an abusive former lover is recalled with nostalgia and pain.
Juliet - librarians react to the murder of one of their patrons
The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs - a man learns his son has broken his trust
Hungry - a woman cares for her granddaughter while her son lies in the hospital
The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston - deals with how a memory can be viewed differently by different people
Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey - a dying man visits a former friend
Thunderstruck - a father and mother struggle to be good parents for their daughter only to then have to deal with the brain injury resulting from her actions

All of the stories feature a slightly oblique point-of-view, as if the normal world is just ever-so-subtly tilted but enough to change perceptions into a reality that seems far removed from the ordinary. McCracken's extraordinary writing ability helps propel the stories forward even as they seem off kilter with life's ironies. She manages to capture despair, tenderness, outrage, and hopefulness, with her keen insight into human behavior and emotions. Everyone is coping with something with various degrees of success, while memory plays tricks on more than one character in this volume.

Some of these short stories were previously published in Granta, Ploughshares, Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Pushcart Prize, and The Best American Stories.



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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Tell Me One Thing

Tell Me One Thing by Deena Goldstone
Knopf Doubleday: 4/22/2014
Hardcover, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385538756

A collection of unforgettable short stories that explores the wondrous transformation between grief and hope, a journey often marked by moments of unexpected grace.
Set in California, Tell Me One Thing is an uplifting and poignant book about people finding their way toward happiness. In "Get Your Dead Man's Clothes," "Irish Twins," and "Aftermath," Jamie O'Connor finally reckons with his tumultuous childhood, which propels him to an unexpected awakening. In "Tell Me One Thing," Lucia's decision to leave her loveless marriage has unintended consequences for her young daughter. In "Sweet Peas," "What We Give," and "The Neighbor," the sudden death of librarian Trudy Dugan's beloved husband forces her out of isolation and prompts her to become more engaged with her community. And in "Wishing," Anna finds an unusual kind of love. Tell Me One Thing is about the life we can create despite the grief we carry and, sometimes, even because of the grief we have experienced.
My Thoughts:

Tell Me One Thing by Deena Goldstone is a very highly recommended collection of eight stories. I loved this collection.

Several of the short stories are interconnected through the characters in Tell Me One Thing. All eight of the stories focus on interpersonal relationships and how people struggle to connect with each other while overcoming their own issues and burdens. Goldstone show how people bear the burdens of their past and how that load becomes heavier over time, crushing them until they can find a way to deal with the burdensome past. Though the characters all face a loss of some kind and are grieving, they manage to transcend their pasts and pain to eventually find peace, contentment, and even love. 
 
Contents: Get Your Dead Man’s Clothes
Irish Twins
Aftermath
Tell Me One Thing
Sweet Peas
What We Give
The Neighbor
Wishing


Jamie O'Connor is the main character in "Get Your Dead Man's Clothes," "Irish Twins," and "Aftermath." He is dealing with the death of his abusive father, his haunting past in his family, his mother's failure to even try to protect him. A year after the funeral his sister Ellen visits with a plan to force Jamie to confront his feelings but causes a catastrophic event of her own making. Then Jaime is left to continue to deal with his past as well as the damage Ellen has caused. 
The titular story concerns a woman who has left her husband and how that is affecting her daughter.
Librarian Trudy Dugan must teach herself how to continue living and connecting with the world after the death of her husband Brian in "Sweet Peas," "What We Give," and "The Neighbor."
Anna finds love in "Wishing."

The quality of the writing in Tell Me One Thing is exquisite. Goldstone manages to capture the complex psychological state of her characters as they struggle with their emotions and overcoming the visceral burdens of grief, hope, despair, and anger. Sometimes family, friends, and acquaintances have imposed the burden on a character but often it is of their own making or simply a result of living.

I can't recommend this collection enough.

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


Quotes:
Sitting in St. Timothy’s Cathedral during his father’s funeral Mass, Jamie has no idea how the rest of his brothers and sisters feel about their father’s death, but he knows what he is feeling—nothing. Of that he is sure. Over the forty-two years of his life he has cultivated nothingness when it comes to his father, assiduously. Location 51

When do you stop loving a parent? Jamie wonders. How much can a child take before that stubborn flame of necessary love sputters and dies? Location 119
 
...as an adult now, starting his forties, he’s come to realize that it is his mother who never, not once, stepped in to protect him against his father’s assaults. He’s certain now that Carrie O’Connor’s crime was the greater one. Location 319

So all eight of the O’Connor siblings have their own version of what life was like growing up in that narrow brick house in Buffalo, but no one has compared notes. Until now. Ellen has come halfway around the world for just that purpose. Location 325   

Aftermath Having spent most of his forty-three years intimately acquainted with the notion that the sins of the father are visited upon the son, Jamie O’Connor now contemplates the sins of the sister. Deep in the middle of the night, as he drives from his home to University Hospital, he tries to determine what his responsibility is to carry those. Location 906

They were an oddly matched pair, Trudy short and round, Brian resembling a whooping crane with all the angles and odd posturing that those birds employ. They never saw the mismatch. Trudy found in Brian an unusual grace, and Brian was always reassured that Trudy fit so easily into his embrace. They were the sort of couple that most people didn’t understand—the attraction, the connection, the longevity. She’s so caustic, it was often said, such a brusque sort of person. He was so quiet, that’s the first thing people noticed. Location 2230
 
Peggy Coopersmith, walking her chocolate Lab before work, found Brian sprawled across Madia Lane. Dead before the paramedics could get there and ascertain that his aorta had ruptured. Dead before Trudy could tell him she loved him one last time. Dead, alone. That last part—that he died without her there to comfort him—never stopped tormenting her. Location 2433 

On that March afternoon, as Armando helped Trudy plant her tomato seedling, kneeling by her side, he felt something shift within her, something tiny to be sure, but he heard a small sigh escape from her body, and with it, he was certain, came some measure of the sadness that seemed to weigh her down so. For all that he was grateful and very pleased with himself that he had thought to bring the tomatoes. Location 2464

Excerpt

Saturday, April 19, 2014

When We Fall

When We Fall by Peter Giglio
DarkFuse: 4/15/14
ebook, 220 pages
ISBN 13: 9781940544311
In the summer of 1985, thirteen-year-old Ben Brendel, still grieving the loss of his best friend, forms an unlikely friendship with the seventeen-year-old girl across the street. Aubrey Rose shares his love for film and soon helps him rekindle his passion for filmmaking.

But shortly after their first film is sent to the developing lab, Ben finds himself haunted by bizarre visions and nightmares. And when he brings the film home, nothing can prepare him for the dark secret it will reveal, bending the fragile bonds of family and friendship past the breaking point, and testing the courage and strength of a boy on the cusp of manhood.

WHEN WE FALL is a dark coming-of-age tale you won’t soon forget.

My Thoughts:

When We Fall by Peter Giglio is a highly recommended dark coming-of-age novella.

Ben Brendel is sure Billy Joel got it wrong. "The bad die, too. Young, old, and all points in between. Everyone dies." He knows this because a year after his best friend, Johnny, dies, thirteen year old Ben finds himself going to another funeral, this time for his worst enemy. Ben still misses Johnny and the Super 8 movies they made together. When seventeen year old Aubrey Rose, the girl across the street who babysat him buys film for him and offers to make a movie with him, Ben is thrilled. Aubrey is the only other person he knows who is nice to him and doesn't treat him like an outcast.

Ben plans to do part 4 of the series he and Johnny were filming and lets Audrey know about the plot: “But I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble figuring it out. It’s not like we really followed a story for any of them. We just set up weird ways for evil spirits to get loose and attack people. A reel of Super 8 film is about three minutes long with no sound, so there’s not a lot of room for a story.”

After the two make their film, Ben makes a frightening discovery. Unknown to him Audrey is fighting some demons of her own.

This isn't really a terrifying novella, but it is dark. Actually it is the coming-of-age story that works better than the creepy paranormal elements of the plot. Ben was a believable thirteen year old boy and Giglio does an excellent job developing his character. Although When We Fall is listed as 220 pages it did seem much shorter thus my calling it a novella. Perhaps that perception could be due to the intensity of the story too. The ending was a shocking surprise for me.


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

Friday, April 18, 2014

Casebook

Casebook by Mona Simpson
Knopf Doubleday: 4/15/2014
Hardcover, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385351416
monasimpson.com/

From the acclaimed and award-winning author of Anywhere But Here and My Hollywood, a powerful new novel about a young boy’s quest to uncover the mysteries of his unraveling family. What he discovers turns out to be what he least wants to know: the inner workings of his parents’ lives. And even then he can’t stop searching.
Miles Adler-Hart starts eavesdropping to find out what his mother is planning for his life. When he learns instead that his parents are separating, his investigation deepens, and he enlists his best friend, Hector, to help. Both boys are in thrall to Miles’s unsuspecting mother, Irene, who is “pretty for a mathematician.” They rifle through her dresser drawers, bug her telephone lines, and strip-mine her computer, only to find that all clues lead them to her bedroom, and put them on the trail of a mysterious stranger from Washington, D.C.
Their amateur detective work starts innocently but quickly takes them to the far reaches of adult privacy as they acquire knowledge that will affect the family’s well-being, prosperity, and sanity. Burdened with this powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil and concoct modes of revenge on their villains that are both hilarious and na├»ve. Eventually, haltingly, they learn to offer animal comfort to those harmed and to create an imaginative path to their own salvation.
Casebook brilliantly reveals an American family both coming apart at the seams and,  simultaneously, miraculously reconstituting itself to sustain its members through their ultimate trial. Mona Simpson, once again, demonstrates her stunning mastery, giving us a boy hero for our times whose story remains with us long after the novel is over.
My Thoughts:

In Casebook by Mona Simpson a young amateur sleuth hears more than he bargained for which eventually leads to an expanded investigation and results in some hard earned lessons and maturity. Highly Recommended


When Miles Adler-Hart was 12 he originally began eavesdropping on his parents in a vain attempt to discover any plans they might have for his futures. Instead of talking about him, Miles discovers that their relationship is in trouble and they are getting divorced. After the divorce Miles' mother, Irene, introduces him to her boyfriend, Eli. With the help of his friend, Hector, Miles increases his surveillance on his mom and this questionable new man. Miles and Hector eventually befriend a PI to help in their investigation.

Miles says of Eli: "It was odd story. Like the brother. A lot of Eli’s life seemed weird. Sad, too. I felt that even then. But sad in a way that had no poignancy. More like a disease I hoped wasn’t contagious."
 
Simpson follows her teenage protagonist Miles from age 12 to post high school, with most of the novel centered around Miles to about age 15. This novel manages to transcend the usual teenage novel full of angst associated with a broken family and the ensuing financial stress it causes by focusing on the mysterious relationship between Irene and Eli as seen through the eyes and ears of a sometimes clueless, sometimes insightful Miles and Hector. There is also a dose of humor in Miles story through some of his schemes and antics, along with the poignancy of an alienated teen during a tragic time in his life.
 
The novel is set up as an account after the fact, with a present day Miles and Hector as successful comic book authors, with footnotes added later with comments on what is written. This is a coming-of -age novel with a mystery entwined in the story. Simpson does a wonderful job capturing Miles thoughts for his age while allowing Irene's personal struggles to remain somewhat aloof and beyond Miles' ability to comprehend.

In many ways Simpson's account is a somewhat sanitized picture of what divorce means to many women and children. While there is definitely emotional strain, the devastating blow that many experience emotionally and financially isn't pictured quite as insidious here as the reality is for many.

The quality of Simpson's writing and her ability to really allow us to connect with her teenage protagonist help to elevate Casebook up from just-another-coming-of-age-story to a novel with a mystery to unravel while we gain insight into all of the characters.

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

 
 

 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chop Chop

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe
Penguin Group: 4/17/2014
Hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594205798  

An outrageously funny and original debut set in the fast-paced and treacherous world of a restaurant kitchen
Fresh out of the university with big dreams, our narrator is determined to escape his past and lead the literary life in London. But soon he is two months behind on rent for his depressing Camden Town bed-sit and forced to take a job doing grunt work in the kitchen of The Swan, a formerly grand restaurant that has lost its luster.
Mockingly called “Monocle” by his boisterous co-workers for a useless English lit degree, he is suddenly thrust into the unbelievably brutal, chaotic world of professional cooking and surrounded by a motley cast of co-workers for which no fancy education could have prepared him. There’s the lovably dim pastry chef Dibden, who takes all kinds of grief for his “girly” specialty; combative Ramilov, who spends a fair bit of time locked in the walk-in freezer for pissing people off; Racist Dave, about whom the less said the better; Camp Charles, the officious head waiter; and Harmony, the only woman in a world of raunchy, immature, drug- and rage-fueled men. But worst of all, there’s Bob, the sadistic head chef, who runs the kitchen with an iron fist and a taste for cruelty that surprises and terrifies even these most hardened of characters.
Once initiated and begrudgingly accepted, Monocle enters into a strange camaraderie with his fellow chefs, one based largely on the speed and ingenuity of their insults. In an atmosphere that is more akin to a zoo—or a maximum security prison—than a kitchen he feels oddly at home. But soon an altogether darker tale unfolds as Monocle and his co-workers devise a plot to overthrow Bob and Monocle’s dead-beat father (who has been kicked out of the family home) shows up at his door. Not only does his dad insist on sleeping on the floor of Monocle’s apartment; he starts hanging out at The Swan’s dissolute bar in the evenings. As the plan to oust Bob clicks into motion and the presence of his father causes Monocle to revisit lingering questions from his unhappy childhood, Chop Chop accelerates toward its blackly hilarious, thrilling, and ruthless conclusion.
My Thoughts:


Chop Chop by Simon Wroe is highly recommended for those who can appreciate a humorous (and realistic) look at the inside workings of the food industry.

Monocle, whose nickname is bestowed upon him based on his English Lit degree, is a recent graduate who is in desperate need of a job. He applies at The Swan, a London restaurant that is past its glory days, and is thrust into the world of professional chefs and the inner workings of a professional kitchen. Monocle learns to become a chef under very adverse conditions while also coming to terms with his past and his relationship with his father.

Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant kitchen (or a large-scale professional kitchen anywhere) is going to understand the cast of odd characters that populate this world and know that Wroe knows about which he writes.

I had to laugh about chopping up one onion and then reading:
“I don’t want one onion chopped,” he said. “What am I going to do with one f***ing onion? Do the whole bag.” The whole bag? It was the size of a turkey. I struggled to lift it. No one in their right mind needed so many onions. That day I realized I knew nothing about food or cooking. Also, more worryingly, nothing about people or communication. Months of fiction in that armchair, and years of studying it before that, had left me dealing with life at reading speed. Conversations passed me by while I was still formulating a response. People here dealt with one another so firmly, with no concerns for the nuances of situation.


Boy is that is the truth. You need to work fast and efficiently with little chance to finesse any situation. It is go-go-go until hours have passed and you don't have a clue where the time went.
 

There are so many great examples but I picked out a few more:
“Smoke?” He held out a cigarette. “You will,” he said when I refused. (Location 355)
"That was the first rule I learned at The Swan: Never challenge the person in charge. They could make your life more hellish than you could imagine. This, incidentally, is true of families as well as kitchens."  (Location 436)

I also had to say "Isn't that the truth" when Monocle realizes that his hands are going to be permanently stained from his job, but even more so that it is your feet and legs that take the brunt of the abuse. After standing for hours there is no amount of rest that can make up for the pain.

But the truisms of working in a restaurant are just a part of the story. The cast of characters is an even more enticing component of this novel. They are weird and wonderful, including: "Racist Dave," chef Ramilov,  Dibden the pastry chef, and a girl named Harmony, and the cruel head chef Bob. The story takes a dark turn and, although it is humorous, it is also gritty and not for the faint of heart.


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

Under a Silent Moon

Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes
HarperCollins : 4/15/2014
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062276025
www.elizabeth-haynes.com
 
This first novel in an exciting British crime series from suspense talent Elizabeth Haynes, is a blend of literary suspense and page-turning thriller that introduces formidable Detective Chief Inspector Louisa Smith.

In the crisp, early hours of an autumn morning, the police are called to investigate two deaths. The first is a suspected murder at a farm on the outskirts of a small village. A beautiful young woman has been found dead, her cottage drenched with blood. The second is a reported suicide at a nearby quarry. A car with a woman’s body inside was found at the bottom of the pit.

As DI Louisa Smith and her team gather evidence, they discover a shocking link between the two cases and the two deaths—a bond that sealed their terrible fates one cold night, under a silent moon.

In Under a Silent Moon, Elizabeth Haynes interweaves fictional primary source materials—police reports, phone messages, interviews—and multiple character viewpoints to create a sexy, edgy, and compulsively readable tale of murder, mystery, and unsettling suspense.
My Thoughts:


Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes is a highly recommended British police procedural that marks the start of a new series.

The day after Halloween two different women are found dead in a small village.  Polly Leuchars, who was working as a stable hand for Felicity Maitland, is found bludgeoned to death in her cottage. Clearly she was murdered. A second woman, Barbara Fletcher-Norman, is found in  a car that went into quarry. Once he hears of her death, her husband collapses and is sent to the hospital. Things are not quite as simple as they originally seem for Detective Chief Inspector Louisa (Lou) Smith of the major crimes unit, who takes the lead in the investigation.  Andy Hamiltion is also on the case to assist Lou. Matters are even further complicated because Barbara is a neighbor to the Maitlands. It seems that Polly may have been having an affair with Barbara's husband - as well as many others - but there is also some suspicious illegal business going on that could tie into the cases. 

For those who really love their police procedurals Under a Silent Moon  includes official reports, interviews, emails, and documents from the case. These documents help to propel the story forward while uncovering clues to solve the crime, which results in an authenticity to the novel. It's one thing to tell us what the police heard from a witness. It's another thing to read the report or interview of the witness. I think the inclusion of the "official" documents is clearly an addition that you will either like or dislike - I happened to be on the like side. I also rather enjoyed the case diagrams provided in the appendix. Haynes is a police intelligence analyst so the materials she includes look like the real deal. 

While the plot of the novel is well thought out and carefully devised, some of the characters are less well developed. I wasn't too bothered by this because clearly some characters will be better developed over time in the new series. For those who like closure, the ending is clearly written with a sequel in mind so every issue in the story isn't completely resolved.


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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Until You're Mine

Until You're Mine by Samantha Hayes
Crown Publishing: 4/15/2014

Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780804136891
www.samanthahayes.co.uk


You're alone. You're vulnerable. And you have something that someone else wants. At any cost.
 
Claudia Morgan-Brown finally has it all. Pregnant with a much-wanted first baby of her own, she has a happily established family of two small step-sons and a loving husband with a great career. But she is also committed to her full-time job as a social worker, and her husband travels often. So when Claudia hires Zoe to help her around the house in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, it seems like the answer to her prayers. But despite Zoe's glowing recommendations and instant rapport with the children, there's something about her that Claudia cannot trust.
 
Moreover, there has been a series of violent attacks on pregnant women in the area, and Claudia becomes acutely aware of her vulnerability. With her husband out of town for work and her family far away, who will be there to protect her? And why does she feel unsettled about Zoe? Realizing appearances can be deceiving even in her seemingly perfect world, Claudia digs deeper into Zoe’s blurry past and begins to wonder – how far would someone go to have a child of her own?
 
Riveting from its very first pages, Until You’re Mine is a multilayered masterwork of twisted, psychological suspense. Readers of Before I Go to Sleep and Turn of Mind will be enthralled by this multilayered novel, featuring a twisted plot that ends in a breathtaking and shocking finale.

My Thoughts:


Until You're Mine by Samantha Hayes is a highly recommended novel of suspense, terror, and some surprising twists and turns.

A very pregnant Claudia Morgan-Brown is married to James, a Royal Navy officer and is mother to his two twin sons by his first wife. Because he is gone for long periods of time they decide to hire a nanny, Zoe, to help Claudia care for the twins and the soon-to-arrive new baby. At the same time Lorraine, a police detective, is investigating along with Adam, her cheating police detective husband, recent attacks on pregnant woman.

Set in Birmingham, England, the narrative in Until You're Mine is told through the viewpoints of the three women in alternating chapters. We know right from the start that Zoe, the nanny, is suspicious and that everything may not be as she says it is as she takes the job of nanny for social worker, Claudia. Zoe has some kind of relationship with a mentally unbalanced woman who longs to have a baby. Claudia is somewhat suspicious of Zoe but also needs her help with James gone. The twins are a handful and Claudia is still working until her baby is born. Lorraine's marriage is going through a tough time and investigating the brutal attacks against pregnant women is adding to her stress.

I'd have to say that while the writing was adequate, the twists at the end improved my rating of the book. The ending came as a total surprise which redeemed Until You're Mine for me. Up to the ending I was finding the way the voices of Zoe and Claudia were written to be almost indistinguishable from each other - with the only difference simply what they were thinking about. It might have been nice to imbibe them with their own personalities and make the difference between the two a bit more obvious. Lorraine's chapters were easily distinguished from the other two, although some of the side story with Lorraine and her family didn't add to the novel. I did like how the sense of foreboding and dread grew as the novel progressed.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Crown Publishing via Netgalley for review purposes.