Friday, December 29, 2017

Cinderella or Pygmalion?

Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict

Clara Kelly was not who everyone thought she was, and this accident of mistaken identity lands her the position of lady’s maid in one of the wealthiest homes in all Pittsburgh, that of the Carnegie family. If Clara is to help her family back in Ireland, then keeping up appearances is what she’ll have to do, even when Mrs. Carnegie’s eldest son Andrew starts to treat her not like a household employee, but as an equal and maybe something more.

At first glance, this looks like a classic Cinderella story, but on closer inspection, we see many divergences. Cinderella wanted to free herself from her terrible family, and Clara hopes to some day reunite with hers. Cinderella let her emotions carry her away, but Clara does everything she can to keep hers in check. More importantly, Cinderella had very few ambitions of her own and it seems she left her fate to others, while Clara knows she can rely only upon herself to survive, and possibly one day thrive in this new world. Finally, Cinderella was transformed from a poor peasant into a princess by a man, but Clara is forced to transform herself to improve her life and the lives of her family. With all these differences, perhaps this is the opposite of a Cinderella story, except for the fact that both come from nothing and end up with something better.

On second thought, maybe this is more like a Pygmalion story than Cinderella one. If we go back to the Greek mythology of Pygmalion, we know this is the story of a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues, who the gods bring to life so the two can marry. Of course, it is the sculptor whose name is Pygmalion, and not the statue, but that’s beside the point. The parallel here in Benedict’s story is that Clara begins to come out of her shell when she begins studying the Carnegie businesses and Andrew begins to help her with her investigations, and later consult with her on these topics. However, unlike in Ovid’s tale, but closer to George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name, we understand from the prologue of Benedict’s book that Andrew and Clara do not end up as a couple. Where Benedict combines the two is in how both Clara and Andrew end up transformed in one way or another through their association with each other.

Of course, it is less important to decide if this is a Cinderella story, a Pygmalion story, both or neither, than it is to see how carefully Benedict draws out this story. When it comes to this, I have to say that Benedict did a perfectly lovely job. We love Clara because she is strong, principled, while at the same time, willing to do almost anything to save her family. We admire Andrew because he’s that self-made, self-taught man who started with nothing and struggled to become one of the wealthiest people in the world. Even so, neither of them are perfect; Clara knows she’s living a lie, and Andrew’s affluence seems to have made him forget where he came from. Benedict melds these two characters – her fictional Clara and what she’s garnered about the real-life Carnegie – into a tale that is both charming and heartwarming, while at the same time, poignant. More importantly, Benedict lets you have empathy for Andrew, despite his faults, so that the emotional connection between him and Clara makes perfect sense.

I also found that although the story takes place in the mid-1800s, Benedict carefully highlights many things that are very relevant to today’s world, some of which borders on political commentary – in particular, class struggles, inequitable wealth distribution, and how money and power sometimes blind the affluent to the socioeconomic troubles around them which their greed often causes. Although this might sound like Benedict takes up a preaching soap-box, in fact, the style of the prose here is anything but that. Benedict uses language here in a very measured way, to build up an atmosphere of wariness that slides between guarded hope and discernible anxiety, without ever getting either maudlin or miserable.

Overall, I found this a very absorbing and enjoyable read. Benedict is a very talented writer with a gentle style, who has given us a book that isn’t overly heavy or romantic, has a very good balance of historical fact and creative fiction, with carefully developed, sympathetic characters and a well-rounded, believable story. The only thing that kept this from being perfect for me was at the very end. However, since I don’t give away any spoilers, I’ll leave it to say that I can warmly recommend this book and happily give it four and a half stars out of five. (Now I want to read Benedict’s first novel, “The Other Einstein” even more than I did before.)

Sourcebooks Landmark will release "Carnegie’s Maid" by Marie Benedict on January 16, 2018. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Border Life

All the Rivers UK Edition

All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan

Liat is spending time in the New York apartment of friends, while she studies for her translation degree. Hilmi is living in Brooklyn, trying to make it as an artist. Their whirlwind romance would be uneventful except for the fact that Liat is Jewish and comes from Tel Aviv, and Hilmi is a Palestinian from Ramallah, in the West Bank. With this book, Rabinyan brings us an
exquisitely crafted, modern “Romeo and Juliette” story that strikes at the heart of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can tear people apart.

NOTE: As the year 2015 was ending, the Israeli Ministry of Education, headed by Naftali Bennett, announced that they were banning Dorit Rabinyan’s novel from being part of the Israeli High School literature curriculum. This immediately turned this book into an "overnight" best seller, and spurred translations for the international literary world. Well, thank you Minister Bennett, because had you not banned this book, I would never have gotten to read it (yes, I can read Hebrew, but being dyslexic, it is a very slow and tedious process). Bennett claimed that his ban wasn’t racist, but rather he objected to the “portrayal of the IDF” in the book (which got, maybe, all of five sentences). However, we all knew that what he was really objecting to was the taboo romance between an Arab man and a Jewish woman (so yes, he is a racist). Ironically, if Bennett had bothered to read the book before banning it, he would have found out that the absolute last thing this tragic love story does is promote interracial or inter-religious relations.

All politics aside (difficult as this may be), I believe that what Rabinyan has achieved here is simply stellar. As noted above, essentially this is a classic plot of star-crossed lovers, using a setting where everything in their lives, both internal and external, is against them. Hilmi is making a life in New York, and Liat’s life is in Israel. While neither of their families would approve of their relationship, Rabinyan also shows us the internal turmoil that both Hilmi and Liat have knowing from the onset that their relationship is doomed. That neither of them can view their emotions as casual, only means that neither of them can walk away without causing each other and themselves pain. Even when they’re both back home, and only an hour away from each other, their worlds are still separated, both by a boarder and by history. All of this is told from Liat’s viewpoint, where each piece of her connections to Hilmi come across with both sensitivity and profound emotions, that leap from the page and affect us viscerally.

It isn’t easy to describe just how deeply this book touched me. On the one hand, I’m a hopeless romantic; love should be able to conquer all; and we can’t help who we fall in love with. When it comes to love, the only thing that should matter is what kind of a person you are, not your religion or your nationality. Yet, knowing what I know and how impossible their situations are, I didn’t want Liat and Hilmi to get overly attached. I could almost feel their internal struggles going on within me, mostly because of the deep empathy that Rabinyan evokes through this story, which is precisely what excellent writing is all about. I only wish that I could have read this in Hebrew, because as blown away as I was with this translation by (Man Booker International Prize winner) Jessica Cohen, the original must be even more amazing.

In short, there is nothing here that I could fault with this book. The plot, the characters, and above all, the writing, are all carefully crafted and come across with remarkable depth, beauty and poignancy. I can’t simply recommend this book, I must urge you to read it, and it deserves even more than a full five stars (take THAT, Minister Bennett, and what's more, I'm updating my 2017 "best of" list to include this as tied for first place).

All the Rivers US Edition
Serpent’s Tail in the UK released "All the Rivers" by Dorit Rabinyan on March 2, 2017, and Penguin Random House released it in the USA on April 25, 2017. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (free worldwide delivery, support literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

PS/FYI: Am Oved published “Gader Chaya,” the original Hebrew version of this book, in 2014. "Gader Chaya" is Hebrew for hedge, but a purely literal translation would be "live border."

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Calculating Woman

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is the fictionalized story of Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace. In real life, not only was she the only legal child of the famed poet Lord Byron, but she was a talented mathematician and scientists, who made huge contributions to those worlds during the late 19th century. In Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel, she becomes much more than that.

Although I usually start my reviews with the positives and then follow them with misgivings, I’m going to depart from tradition with this book, and I hope you’ll understand why. As some of my readers already know, I’ve noticed that with historical fiction, authors don’t always know how to reach the perfect balance between fiction and facts. This happens most often when there is a plethora of true information available about that person, even when it seems that few people know about them. This is precisely the problem I had with this book. While it may seem unfair of me, once again, the book I was hoping to read and what I received, were two different things.

To be specific, I already knew a little bit about Lady Lovelace, in that she had some hand in the mathematics that went into building a machine that many would consider the forerunner of today’s computer. I also knew about the punch-cards used in Jacquard looms to create intricate patterns and designs for woven fabrics, and how those cards eventually led to using a similar system for inputting data into computers (and I’m old enough to have worked on a computer like that). So, my interest with the Lovelace of then and learning more about what she did that led to computers was irresistible to me. Unfortunately, the opening 30% of this book focused solely on Lord Byron and his marriage to Ada’s mother, through their disastrous separation. While this give the reader great insights into Ada’s long-suffering mother, and motivation for how she treated her only daughter, I’m almost certain that this could have been deleted from the book without any detriment whatsoever.

When Chiaverini finally got to Ada’s tale, I was really hoping that we’d get quickly into the real meat of the story. However, Chiaverini starts out by leading us to believe that Ada could recall the most obscure details of her early life, even from her first weeks and months after her birth. With this conceit, coupled with a surplus of intrigues and scandals within the extended Byron family (that lasted decades), Ada’s accomplishments seemed overshadowed, apart from the many references to how deeply (almost obsessively) she loved to study math and science. Of course, the irony here is how often Chiaverini notes that Ada wanted to do something and be recognized in the world for her own accomplishments, and not just as Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter.

You might ask, therefore, why I bothered to finish reading this book. The fact is, I couldn’t stop reading it because Chiaverini is such a marvelous writer. Her style beautifully fits the period, with lush descriptions (although I could have done without some of the details of the dresses) that made every scene come alive. Yes, there were times when I found myself skimming some of the text, but that was very rare. I know I use the word “compelling” often when reviewing books, but when the shoe fits… and Chiavernini’s prose just kept me fascinated, so kudos to her for that. Furthermore, the readers will feel an intimacy with Lady Lovelace throughout this book, as Chiavernini writes it fully from Ada’s viewpoint, as a type of fictionalized memoir.

In addition, I must admit that Lady Lovelace’s contributions to the field of math and science, though significant in hindsight, weren’t what anyone could call massive, or extensive, or even large. What she accomplished were three very important influences upon Charles Babbage and his “engines.” Those were her suggestion to use the Jacquard loom punch cards for more efficiency of entering data, her publication of her notes on Babbage’s work, and her writing an algorithm for one machine. By the way, that algorithm is arguably considered to be the first “computer program.” So, with only two breakthroughs and one major publication (which the world of science initially lauded, but then dismissed after they found out that it was written by a woman), I realized that any historical fiction novel about Lady Lovelace would be very thin indeed if it didn’t include at least some of her family’s history – both famous and infamous.

In short, if you’re looking for a book about Lady Lovelace that divorces her from her renowned father and his notorious life, this isn’t it, but I’m afraid that novel will either never get written, or will be very short. However, if you’re looking for a novel that encompasses everything that Lady Lovelace was and did, and everything that influenced her short life, this is just the thing. Mind you, I personally think it included far too much extraneous information (particularly the first 30% of the book), but that only proves how marvelously well researched this book is, and that’s in Chiaverini’s favor here. All things considered, I’m still willing to recommend this book, but I can only give it three stars out of five.

Dutton (a division of Penguin Random House) released "Enchantress of Numbers" by Jennifer Chiaverini on December 5, 2017. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (eBook or audiobook), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

My Top Five (or more) Books of 2017

Those of my readers who have been following this blog for a while, know that I had to stuff seven novels into my favorites of 2016 list, and eight books ended up on list for 2015. This year, I have nine books that deserved a full five stars. Notably, one of these is a non-fiction book. Since I usually make these lists about fiction, that one non-fiction five-star book will get a special award. That means that once again, I need to cram eight books into this list. With no further ado required, let the countdown begin.

#5 – Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney – this novel took its inspiration from real-life poet and Macy's ad-writer Margaret Fishback, who gained fame for her clever ads and humorous poetry in the 1930s. This delightful book of historical fiction brings an essentially unknown woman into the limelight at last. (Oh, and by the way, where have you been all my reading life, Kathleen Rooney?)

#4 – Girl in Disguise by Greer McCallister – in McCallister's second novel, she takes on telling the story of Kate Warne, America's (and maybe the world's) first female detective, who walked into the Pinkerton's Detective Agency in 1856 and insisted Pinkerton take her on as an agent. With the little information left about Warne and her escapades, Macallister succeeds in weaving a story of intrigue and mystery in a tale that will fascinate as well as educate.

#3 – Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss TIED with The Golden House by Salman Rushdie – Krauss’ long awaited fourth novel is, to my mind her best yet. In this book, Krauss gives us parallel stories of two characters that travel from New York to Tel Aviv, while neither of them ever meets the other. Despite these disconnected tales, Krauss leads us to draw our own comparisons and contrasts with what she both reveals from and hides underneath their adventures. Rushdie’s latest novel moves back into the realm of solid reality, to revolve around the newest wealthy family at "The Gardens," a gated New York Community - the Golden family. Not only do they all have strange names (straight out of ancient Roman and Greek history and mythology), but they themselves seem a bit odd. René is a fellow resident, with ambitions in filmmaking, including a project to document the Golden family, but René hasn't decided if he should tell their true story or make up something fictional; either way, René can't seem to stay away from the Golden House.

#2 – See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – the infamous Lizzie Borden was a woman that the public (but not a jury) believed murdered her father and stepmother with an axe. Since the science of forensics at the time was primitive at best, they found neither proof of Lizzie's guilt nor any other suspects. That means we will never know the whole truth. Using this mystery, Sarah Schmidt devises her own ideas about Lizzie Borden, her family and the murders, all of which she put into her dark and highly emotive debut novel.

#1 – The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce TIED with the novel Beartown by Fredrik Backman AND the novella The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman – last year, Backman’s novel and novella got demoted (after grabbing the first-place spots in 2014 and 2015) to the second-place spot, but both of his two works of this year left me breathless. However, Joyce’s fourth book had me bawling like a baby, so I couldn’t place her novel any lower on this list. UPDATE: I have decided that I must also include All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan as another book TIED for first place this year (although it was first published in Israel in 2014 in Hebrew, the English version only came out in 2017, so it does deserve to be here as well)!

NON-FICTION Award Not Quite Lost: Travels without a Sense of Direction by Roz Morris – who would have thought that a self-published book would be so absolutely delightful, but this one certainly is just that. Morris, who is an accomplished ghost-writer, took the step to finally publish under her own name, and the world is better for it. This lovingly written diary takes us along Morris' many travels (mostly across Britain), where random entries in hotel or B&B guest books spark the imagination and become new adventures both thrilling and beautiful. Although I haven’t read her fiction (not really my thing, as they’re kinda fantasy/Sci-Fi books), if this little memoir is anything to go by, they must be wonderful.

That’s it for this year, and here's wishing everyone a 2018 filled with more amazing books. (Who knows, but maybe I'll need to make that list a "top ten" one!) You can find my previous lists here:

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Mysterious Models

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

“On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding give: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. it is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true. As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?”

This alone would pique anyone’s interest, but to follow that with the opening lines of this book was what grabbed me and had me in thrall from start to finish. The book begins “The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.” Okay, so you tell me if that doesn’t just blow you away? This simply sets an amazing tone with its poetry, that you might wonder if Burton can keep it up. Yet she does, and without it ever sounding overtly flowery or heavy. In fact, although these awe-inspiring turns of phrase pop up regularly throughout the text, for the most part, the language and style here is ultimately accessible and straight forward. Furthermore, Burton chooses her words carefully so that together with the plot, she builds an atmosphere that feels like this could easily be a memoir written in the late 17th century.

Now, rather than continue to be totally effusive and gushing about this novel, I’ll point out a few things that other reviewers might not touch on. For example, one thing that surprised me about this book is that there is a real-life cabinet house that sits in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which was once owned by one Petronella Oortman (and there’s a picture of it included in the book). Apparently, this was the inspiration for Burton’s debut novel, which I think is fascinating. When people ask where writers get their inspiration, certainly this is proof that they can get it from practically anywhere, anyone and anything. Obviously, seeing this cabinet house spurred Burton so much that she ended up doing what feels like extensive research about the era and place, some of the findings of which she includes after the end of the book, with other information, among which also includes a small glossary and some guidelines for what things cost at the time. I found this a lovely touch, and it certainly put some things into perspective.

Another thing was the slightest hints of magical realism that Burton includes here. All of this surrounds the titular character, and that artisan’s peculiar talents. Not only can this miniaturist make breathtakingly accurate replicas of people, animals and inanimate objects, but these reproductions have an uncanny way of revealing things that no one outside of the Brandt house could possibly know, as well as indicate things that have not yet happened. Burton uses this magical realism to further the various twists and turns in the story, including Nella’s various attempts to contact the person responsible for these strange objects.

Essentially, what we have here is a simply lusciously written, inspired work of genius with a complex plot that Burton carefully unfolds while avoiding confusing the readers, and a cast of characters that are both human and endearing. What more can I say but kudos to Burton for this amazing work of historical fiction that deserves a full five out of five stars! 

PS: Had I read this book in 2014, it would certainly have been a front runner in that year’s list of my top five books of the year! Also, I see from IMDb that they’re making a mini-series of this book, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading it; no screen version could ever portray Burton’s truly stunningly beautiful prose.

Picador released "The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton in 2014. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo eBooks, Kobo audiobooks,, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase supports literacy and libraries) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Unraveling the Complexes

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

During the first World War, the British government employed many people as spies in German-occupied Europe, and many of them were women. One of those women was code-named Alice DuBois (who preferred to be called Lili), and became their "Queen of Spies," managing an underground slew of informants that became known as the Alice Network. After the second World War, Charlotte (aka Charlie) St. Clair is searching for her missing cousin, which brings her to Evelyn Gardiner, one of the women in that network. These two set out on a journey, together with Evelyn’s driver and helper Finn Kilgore, not only to find Charlie’s cousin, but also to resolve unanswered questions from both devastating wars.

Yet again, I find myself of two minds about a novel. On the one hand Quinn writes this novel with true aplomb, where the excitement grows into veritable fireworks for the climax scene. Mind you, I think Quinn’s pacing accelerated somewhat slower in the book than I would have liked, and for most of the book I would say it felt like the tension built at a carefully insistent pace. However, when I got to about the 80% mark, that speed increased into something absolutely exhilarating. (Admittedly, before I got to that point, I was wondering if I could give this even four stars.) With this, I was surprisingly pleased with how Quinn carefully slowed that rhythm down for the aftermath and conclusion of the story. This fast let-down could have felt much more abrupt, but I think it was the perfect antidote to the almost frenzy that Quinn worked up to prior to that.

As for Quinn’s writing style, I found this mostly transparent, which allowed the characters and the plot to shine through, with a few jarring things sprinkled throughout the text. For example, it didn’t feel comfortable with Charlie referring to her being pregnant as having gotten “knocked up.” It isn’t that this slang didn’t exist back then, because it did. However, I think that Charlie probably would have used some other, more delicate euphemism early in the book, and only allowed herself to use this lower-class sounding slang after her increased exposure to Evelyn’s very rough-and-tumble personality which came with some outright vulgar vocabulary.

However, what struck me the most was how Quinn developed her three main characters. Quinn made sure that all three of them were very sympathetic, realistic and humanly flawed. Although neither Evelyn nor Finn seemed terribly lovable to begin with, there was something about them both that felt worthy of giving them a chance, and they certainly grew on me by the end of the novel. In fact, all three of them start out at one place in their lives and change throughout the story in one way or another. However, I did feel Quinn allowed some inconsistencies to creep in here. For example, there were times when I thought that Charlie’s part in the story felt superfluous, only for her to come back into the fore later. Also, I felt the title of book was a bit misleading, because the story didn’t give me more than a second-hand view of Louise de Bettignies, the “Alice” of the network, where I was expecting we’d get at least something from her viewpoint. This is my biggest bone of contention with this book, the fact that we aren’t served what was on the menu.

Of course, this isn’t to say that this isn’t an absorbing novel, because it is. Quinn artfully melds Charlie’s search for her cousin and Evelyn’s fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) past, making for an excellent plot basis, which Quinn respectfully and notably develops, practically irrespective of Alice/Louise/Lili and her famous network of spies. My problem is that Quinn piqued my interest about this amazing “Queen of Spies,” and after learning about her (mostly in the afterward), I wished this book had focused more on her exploits and life. Sadly, from what I can see, that historical fiction book hasn’t yet been written. Despite this, I can still recommend this book warmly and give it a solid four out of five stars.

The Gale Group of William Morrow released "The Alice Network" by Kate Quinn in June 2017. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank author Elisabeth Storrs for giving me this book via her ‘Inspiration Newsletter’ giveaway contest!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Hybrid of a Family

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

According to Goodreads this is “a moving novel about three people who find their way back from loss and loneliness to a different kind of happiness. Arthur, a widow, meets Maddy, a troubled teenage girl who is avoiding school by hiding out at the cemetery, where Arthur goes every day for lunch to have imaginary conversations with his late wife, and think about the lives of others. The two strike up a friendship that draws them out of isolation. Maddy gives Arthur the name Truluv, for his loving and positive responses to every outrageous thing she says or does. With Arthur’s nosy neighbor Lucille, they create a loving and unconventional family, proving that life’s most precious moments are sweeter when shared.” Well, I couldn’t have summarized this book better, so let’s leave it at that.

At the outset, I have to admit that I’m of two minds about this book. In general, I really did enjoy it. Berg’s prose is so gentle and inviting, we cannot help but feel for these characters, while totally understanding their motives and actions. Plus, as the story progresses, Berg builds them so lovingly that it’s almost like watching flowers come into bloom. Furthermore, Berg seems to have an excellent knack for pacing her story so that we never get bored nor feel confused with too many things happening. Berg also constructed a plot that makes good sense, and runs faultlessly from beginning to end. Everything Berg is trying to show here comes through with empathy and care. These include the need people have to feel appreciated, the desire to help others and share our lives with them, and the feeling of being in control while at the same time, having people in our lives we can also depend upon.

One thing I really must commend Berg for is the ending of this novel. In my mind, I can imagine a certain scene that Berg could easily have included here, just before the final chapter. Thankfully, Berg (or her editors) didn’t include that scene, and instead jumped ahead in the story, and allowed the readers to assume this situation. Had it been included, I’m certain it would have lessened the effect of the final chapter, so kudos to Berg and/or her editors for that exclusion.

However, despite all this praise, I still have some reservations about this book. Now, perhaps this might seem unfair but early on in reading this book, I got the distinct feeling that Berg was attempting to mold Arthur into an American version of Ove (as in, from Backman’s debut novel). Yes, Ove is far more curmudgeonly and judgmental than Arthur, and also unlike Ove, he certainly hasn’t given up on life. But there are many versions of the old man who you might not always like, but you can’t help loving them nonetheless. Unfortunately, Arthur isn’t the best example of any of them, since for me, Berg wasn’t able to evoke any strong emotions out of me for Arthur. It took me a long while to put my finger on why Arthur didn’t move me, and I think the reason was that Arthur was simply too nice, too often, and it didn’t balance well with the smaller incidences of when he was being difficult. That may sound silly, but I have to be honest, and I feel I needed more harshness in Arthur, so that Berg could convince me to fall for him despite his faults. I’m certain that Berg could have done this, since essentially, we learn to love Lucille in exactly that manner, as Berg knew exactly how terribly infuriating she could be, and we still end up adoring her, both because of and despite her many faults. So, although this is a truly warm and heartwarming tale, tenderly written that just flows softly from beginning to end, it will make you smile, but I’m afraid it won’t make you cry. For this, I can still warmly recommend it, and give it a solid four out of five stars.

Random House will release "The Story of Arthur Truluv" by Elizabeth Berg on November 21, 2017. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A New Christmas Carol

The Deal of a Lifetime: A Novella by Fredrik Backman

The protagonist of this novella is a father who is wealthy, successful and famous. He also has cancer, but so does the adorable five-year-old girl he meets in the hospital. Both of them are going to die eventually. The question is, does it really matter when, how or even why they die? That, together with the question of what differences the choices we make have on our lives, is the essence of Backman’s latest work. (Dear Amazon and/or Atria Books: this is how you write a concise summary of such a brief work of poetic prose, and not the four paragraphs describing half the story, which I found on Amazon.)

In the introduction to this novella, Backman writes “Every day, everywhere, we go down one road or another. We play around; we stay at home; we fall in love and fall asleep right next to each other. We discover we need someone to sweep us off our feet to realize what time really is. So I tried to tell a story about that.” Backman also adds, “Maybe you will find this to be a strange story, I don’t know. It’s not very long, so at least it will be over quickly in that case.” Of course, reading a short work by Backman can be disheartening, simply because I never want to stop reading whatever he writes. Despite that, I understood fully why this story was so short, and why its ending was absolutely perfectly timed.

More importantly, what Backman gives us here is a type of fairy-tale, or if you will, a new Christmas Carol for the 21st century. Our unnamed protagonist is not a nice person – much like Scrooge – who cares more about money than he does about people. In fact, it took him several days to discover that his wife had left him, taking their son with her. This tidbit about the protagonist is exactly the way in which Backman shows the reader what kind of man this is, together with his own admissions of guilt. However, with this callousness, Backman gives us this man’s first-person account of his interactions with this sweet, dying little girl, and his spying on his son, happily working at his bar-tending job. Backman counters these solidly credible connections to this man’s life with an aspect of magical-reality from this mysterious woman with a folder, hence the “Christmas Carol” feeling.

Where this novella seems to depart from his other works, is that here Backman’s prose sounds like this man was speaking directly to his son, and in that, he makes all of his readers into this character. Because this man has never been a good father, and more importantly, isn’t a caring person in general, using this method, Backman succeeds in gaining some level of sympathy for this protagonist, and not just because we know he has an incurable case of cancer, just like the little girl (who we adore at the outset). Of course, Backman has always known how to make us fall in love with less-than-lovable characters, but this man never becomes truly lovable. Instead, Backman only makes us feel somewhat sorry for him. Furthermore, although we still don’t like him very much, when this story ends, we certainly feel better about him, and almost proud of what he does. I’m pretty sure that this was Backman’s intention. Mind you, these conflicting feelings also meant that, for the first time, I didn’t cry while reading a Backman book. On the other hand, after I read the last paragraph, I did sit there stunned for a good five minutes, while the words “oh, wow” went through my head. (Yes, Backman has done it again!)

However, I did have two gripes with this book. The first, as mentioned above, was the blurb I found on Amazon, which is far too detailed for my liking. Hello! This is a work by Fredrik Backman, people! He’s already got a huge following; you don’t need to give so much away. I promise you, it will sell even if all you say is “Fredrik Backman’s newest work is a thought-provoking novella about love, death, choices and consequences”! My other problem was that they sold the Kindle file of this book together with an excerpt from “Beartown” and lots and lots of promos of all Backman’s other books. With all these additions, the novella itself ended at just past the 50% mark of the file! I suspect they did it just to fool people like me into thinking we had more Backman to read. Although this did tick me off somewhat, it didn’t really distract from the novella itself, and I cannot give it less than a full five out of five stars (surprise, surprise - NOT!).

Atria Books released "The Deal of a Lifetime: A Novella" by Fredrik Backman on October 31, 2017. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Reconstructing Music

The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow

The publishers describe this book as follows:

In the early days of the new millennium, pages of a weathered original sonata manuscript—the gift of a Czech immigrant living out her final days in Queens—come into the hands of Meta Taverner, a young musicologist whose concert piano career was cut short by an injury. To Meta’s eye, it appears to be an authentic eighteenth-century work; to her discerning ear, the music rendered there is hauntingly beautiful, clearly the composition of a master. But there is no indication of who the composer might be. The gift comes with the request that Meta attempt to find the manuscript’s true owner—a Prague friend the old woman has not heard from since the Second World War forced them apart—and to make the three-part sonata whole again. Leaving New York behind for the land of Dvorák and Kafka, Meta sets out on an unforgettable search to locate the remaining movements of the sonata and uncover a story that has influenced the course of many lives, even as it becomes clear that she isn’t the only one after the music’s secrets.

Prague is one of my favorite cities in Europe, and that, combined with my musical background made this book very appealing to me, and thankfully this book lived up to at least some of my expectations. First, I love historical fiction, and Morrow gave me a good portion of this, with pieces of the action taking place during both World Wars and the Czech “Velvet Revolution,” although most of this novel takes place at the early part of the 21st century. Of course, my love of Prague was satisfied by many loving descriptions of that city, which made me nostalgic to walk those charming streets again. In addition, Morrow is either very musically knowledgeable, or he has done some excellent research for this book (I understand it took him 10 years to complete it), because he certainly seemed to know his stuff in that area. For example, not many people would know what a WoO is, or understand so fully how a sonata is constructed. Finally, there’s a nice little romance that runs through the book, balanced with a good heaping of mystery and intrigue, to keep the emotional tensions up and move the plot along. All this, together with a gently lyrical, yet unpretentious writing style gave this book a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere, despite the present complexities and clandestine history of this manuscript.

Another good thing about this book is the way Morrow develops his characters. When we are introduced to Meta, we are almost automatically sympathetic to her, and seeing as she’s the major protagonist here, that’s certainly a good thing. Also, early in the book we’re introduced to Jonathan, Meta’s boyfriend, who doesn’t seem a good fit for her, which is something that works out well later in the book. The other characters all seem to fall quietly into place like pieces of a puzzle. There’s Otylie, the manuscript’s owner, Mandelbaum, Meta’s mentor and Gerrit, an American-Czech journalist living in Prague, and Meta’s eventual romantic interest. Along with them Morrow carefully builds a set of antagonists who all seem to want to get their hands on the manuscript for various reasons. There are other characters along the way as well, all of whom seem to get about equal minor billing, and are rounded enough to be both believable and work nicely to enhance the overall story.

While all this sounds pretty good, there are several reasons why I can’t give this book five stars. One problem I had with this book was that several of the lesser characters, although realistic, felt a bit clichéd, and somewhat romanticized, as if Morrow liked them too much to give them any real flaws. There were also some inconsistencies in the plot that bothered me. For example, I wasn’t terribly convinced that Otylie’s husband would have been so protective of this manuscript that Otylie’s father gave her. Furthermore, I felt that Morrow tried to get a bit too much intrigue into this story, and that not only lengthened it (perhaps a bit too much), but also frustrated me as a reader during these passages, since I just wanted Morrow to get back to the essence of the story. On the other hand, I also felt that Morrow should have fleshed some of the sections about Otylie out a bit more, and possibly placed some of them earlier in the book, since their relative thinness and late appearance in the novel was probably what made the climax fall a bit flat for me. In other words, there were some things that were built up too much, while others didn’t get enough buildup for my taste. Finally, I was slightly disappointed that Morrow decided to attribute this sonata to such a famous composer, but I’m guessing that with everything else Morrow needed to research, raising up a lesser known maestro might have been a bit too much.

In any case, overall, this book deserves a whole lot of praise, from the fascinating story idea, to the excellent research into the music world, and with a cast of characters, most of whom were drawn beautifully, and developed with a very loving hand. The fact that it didn’t bother me that this story hits on the Holocaust, but has only one Jewish character, is also noteworthy. I think that most historical fiction lovers will enjoy this book, and despite my few niggles, I can confidently recommend it with four out of five stars.

Grove Atlantic released "The Prague Sonata" by Bradford Morrow on October 13, 2017. This book is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Guest Author Post: Jacey Bedford and her Psi-Tech Universe Trilogy

Many years ago, I met Jacey Bedford through the "usenet" group misc.writing - back in late 20th century, when we were young (read more about that here), and Jacey was only an aspiring author! But look at her today - she's published five books! 

Although I don't read the genre she writes in, I am pleased to share what she wrote on her blog on October 3, 2017 - the publication date of the third book of her trilogy, in which she has some interesting advice and insights on what she's learned!

My new book, NIMBUS, is out today.

Let me say that again because it never gets old.

My new book, NIMBUS, is out today!

It’s my fifth published book, and the third in my Psi-Tech universe. It represents a milestone because it completes my first trilogy. I’ve written over half a million words of space opera, and those are just the words that made it to the final cut.

It’s been a learning curve, sometimes a steep one. So what have I learned?

Writing short and adding takes a lot less time than writing long and cutting.
That may seem obvious, but a lot of us tend to write our way into a book, sometimes because we aren’t quite sure of the right starting point. We have ‘story’ in our heads but not necessarily in the right order. I started NIMBUS four times before I found the right place to start. The other four beginnings were not necessarily scrapped, but they were not suitable as beginnings. One of them ended up being broken for scrap… err… backstory, and two ended up being middle chapters.

Even a pantser can plan when she has to.
Yes, even me.
I’ve always been a discovery writer, writing by the seat of my pants (a pantser, not a plotter.) My usual method of tackling a story is to start with a scene that presents itself particularly strongly. I sit down and write to see where and how far it will take me. At some point, usually between 10,000 and 25,000 words (yes it really does vary by that much) I reach a stopping point, and at that time I sit down and look at what I’ve done and where I think this might be heading. By this time I usually know what the end is (at least roughly), so I scribble a few notes and – hey presto! – that’s my plan. Now, that might work reasonably well for the first book in a series but what about the overall story arc? Exactly! I hear you say. Yes, you’re right. If you’re writing a trilogy, you need to plan. You need a story arc that can be delivered in (more or less) three equal segments, each with its own beginning, middle and (satisfying) end. And the climax of the final book has to provide a payoff, not just for that one book, but for all three books.

Writing the opening of a second or third book is monstrously difficult.
You hope that readers who liked the first book will come back for a second and third helping so that you’re writing for people who already know your world, but there are always those who pick up the second or third book, either without realising that they are coming into a story already part-told, or maybe they’ve just taken a fancy to the cover and the cover copy. So you need to dripfeed in enough backstory to set the scene without giving the whole game away. After all, you really hope that they’ll go back to the first book and play catchup.

You have to like your characters to write half a million words about them.
Fortunately I’ve enjoyed spending time with Cara Carlinni and Reska (Ben) Benjamin. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of telepathy and associated skills. Are they ever likely to exist? biologically, there’s no evidence to suggest that they will, but with a neural implant? Who knows? Cara is an implant-enhanced telepath, able to sling a thought across the galaxy. Ben’s telepathy is weak, but he’s a navigator, that is, he can find his way from anywhere to anywhere else. Cara has trust issues, which isn’t surprising given the nature of her one-time relationship with Ari van Blaiden. Ben’s trust issues are entirely the opposite. He tends to believe the best in people, which either means he’s horribly let down, or the people he believes in truly step up to the plate and become trustworthy. Sometimes he gets a good surprise. I also became fond of some of the supporting characters, so I enjoyed accompanying my characters through a landscape filled with trials and tribulations.

Some readers are wary of buying the first book in a trilogy until all the books are published.
Yes, I can understand that. Like many readers I too have invested in the first two books of a trilogy, or the first five only to discover that the author and publisher have parted company and the concluding part will never see bookstore shelves. No need to worry about the psi-techs. Cara and Ben’s story is now complete. It’s available from all good book retailers in the USA and Canada: (paperback and kindle)
Barnes and Noble (Paperback and nook) (paperback)

You can visit my website
Follow me on Facebook
Tweet me @jaceybedford

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains the "Tales from the Typeface: Writing and Other Vices" blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (, the secretary of Milford SF Writers (, a singer ( and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers ( She's also a Home Office / Border Agency licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificate of Sponsorship).

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Deceptions Large and Small

The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

For most of her life, Amber has been envious of people with money. That's why Amber has a plan to insinuate herself into the world of the rich and powerful. Her scheme isn't all that complicated, but it will take a little bit of patience. First, she has to get friendly with Daphne Parrish, the beautiful wife of the even more handsome and extremely wealthy Jackson Parrish. Then she has to seduce Jackson and get pregnant. Then she'll simply force Jackson to divorce Daphne and marry her, while making sure that Daphne's settlement doesn't break Jackson totally, and they can keep the stately home in the posh area of Connecticut. Simple, really, and if she succeeds, she'll have everything she ever wished for - money, power, and a handsome husband. However, as smart as Amber seems, apparently she never heard the adage "be careful what you wish for."

Every so often a protagonist comes along who is actually as much, if not more of an antagonist to a story. By that, I mean the type of character that you love to hate, and Amber is certainly one of these characters. In this book with Amber, Constantine (who, by the way, is actually a pair of sisters writing under one name) gives us exactly this type of character, and allows her to dominate the first half of this novel, entirely. Through Amber, we learn a tiny bit about her past that still haunts her, no small amount about Daphne and Jackson through Amber's eyes, and all the intricacies of Amber's well thought out and carefully executed plan. It occurred to me while reading this that as we witness this, that had Amber ever thought to use her many abilities less deceptively, she might have reached quite a nice level of success and money through her talent and fortitude alone. Of course, that's part of the point here; we watch someone who has real talent allowing greed to usurp any better judgment they might have had just to wreck havoc and revenge on others. That's Amber.

When Daphne's narrative takes over half way through the book, readers will already have a certain level of sympathy for her, if only because she's being so cruelly targeted by Amber. This is where I have to stop talking about the development of the book, because that would force me to give away spoilers, and I refuse to do that. Leave it to say that we start getting the real, full picture and that's where the psychological drama takes over (of course, there's a hint in the tagline for this book, which reads "Some women get everything. Some women get everything they deserve"). As I noted in another review of this book, I believe that this was a stroke of genius on Constantine's part - first building up the antagonist until we know close to the whole story, and then bringing in the real protagonist to retrace those steps from a completely different angle. Add to this the way that Constantine gives both Daphne and Amber such distinctively different voices, by using harshness for Amber's voice and a more lyrical style for Daphne's voice, and we have a real winner here. (I suspect that these sisters separately wrote these two characters, while jointly working on the plot.)

However, I should mention that I didn't find this book to be perfect. My problem with the book has to do with the ending. What I found was two plot twists that unfortunately extended the climax to what seemed like a bit of overkill for me. I'm sure that Constantine felt unable to give either of these up (I have my own opinion as to which one I would have left out), since they're both great. However, I genuinely feel that if they had had the courage to drop one of them, the ending would have felt more solid and more consistent with the rest of the novel. The old "kill your babies" dilemma let them down, but only slightly. Despite this one drawback, I found myself enjoying this truly gripping book immensely, and in fact, had a very hard time putting it down. That's why I can highly recommend it, but I'm going to reduce my rating by half a star. Even so, four and a half out of five is still a very good recommendation from me!

Harper Collins will release "The Last Mrs. Parrish" by Liv Constantine on October 17, 2017. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review.

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