Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Art of Becoming Real

The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber


The author of the classic, bestselling children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit was Margery Williams Bianco. Pamela Bianco was her daughter, and she was an artist, recognized for her talent when only a child, with her first showing at a gallery in Turin Italy, at the age of 11. If you haven't heard her name, that's no surprise. Child prodigies grow up, and many fade from the limelight as adults. Sometimes, that's because their uniqueness as children seems mundane for adults. Other times, their early fame was more than they could handle. Laurel Davis Huber's novel investigates the relationship between these two women, with her own theories why Pamela and her work is relatively unknown today.

First, a confession: Of course, I've heard of the book The Velveteen Rabbit but I never actually read it as a child. As sacrilegious as that may sound, Huber was generous enough to add the text of the story into this book, so if nothing else, at least that's one less hole in my literary education. While that might sound like a "filler" tactic, I can assure you that this novel about far more than just this classic children's story. In fact, it is hardly a more than blip on Huber's radar. Instead, what Huber investigates here is the relationship between Pamela and Margery, while at the same time, having these protagonists give us their own views of their lives, through their own first-person accounts. In this way, we are able to assume the relationship, rather than witness it.
Moreover, it occurred to me that Huber might have used Margery's famous work as a metaphor for Pamla's life, which is impressive, particularly for a debut novel.
 
Huber achieves this using a prose style that is gently conversational, yet subtly injected with poetic passages whenever the story needs an infusion of emotion. With this, Huber chose to let these two women tell their stories with a somewhat fluid chronology that allows the reader to understand the timeline of events, with some backwards and forwards passages to fill in certain blanks. Of course, most of the flashbacks come from Margery to times before Pamela was born or was very young. To begin with, I found this method made the first couple of chapters a bit confusing to me, which I partially attribute to the fact that I had no prior knowledge of either of these two women. Nonetheless, this feeling passed very quickly, and I soon was engrossed in both these women's lives. Thankfully, this transition happened just as Huber started bringing in a slew of other characters, many of which were actual parts of the lives of this family. These included the artist Pablo Picasso (considered a child prodigy himself), and playwright, Eugene O'Neil, who was married to Margery's cousin. Most significant of these minor characters is Richard Hughes, the Welsh writer who preferred that his friends call him Diccon.

Diccon ends up being a central character in Pamela's story, due to her having fallen in love with him when she was still a young girl. In fact, Huber seems to posit that this unrequited relationship, coming precisely as Pamela was going through puberty, was one of the more significant triggers for Pamela's many bouts of depression. Other causes that Huber points to are such things as genetics (via her father), as well as the family's financial dependence on Pamela continuing to be a commercially viable artist. Of course, depression is a highly complex mental illness, and while Huber cannot give us a comprehensive diagnosis, her assumptions seem mostly reasonable. Moreover, as we watch Margery dealing with both her husband's and her daughter's problems, and witness Pamela's description of her condition, this novel then also becomes a portrait of this disease, almost even more than a depiction of the connections between a mother and daughter, together with the study of these women's lives. 


While this may sound like it might make for a depressing work in itself, Huber succeeds in instilling no small amount of hope into this novel in an attempt to sidestep giving the work an overall gloomy atmosphere. Mind you, at times the book did feel a bit sullen, and I feel that Huber could have added a few more lighter passages for the sake of greater variety of mood. This, combined with some passages that I felt was superfluous to the essence of the story (in particular, regarding the troubled marriage of O'Neil and Margery's cousin Agnes), which disrupted the flow of this book for me, are the reasons why I'm not giving this book a full five stars. Aside from those niggles, I truly enjoyed reading this novel, and will recommend it warmly (especially if you're curious about the lives of children's fiction authors and/or child prodigy artists) with a solid four out of five stars.




"The Velveteen Daughter" by Laurel Davis Huber published by She Writes Press, released July 11 2017 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris 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, June 10, 2017

The clock on the mantle ticked ticked


See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt


Although a jury of her peers found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murders of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, the court of public opinion found her guilty as charged. The mystery behind these brutal murders continues to this day, almost a full 125 years since it happened, while scholars continue to try to figure out the truth. Of course, a good historical mystery is exactly the type of fodder to feed any good fiction writer's imagination. No wonder Schmidt took this story on, and gave it an angle that makes the few facts available even more sinister than the legend or this memorable gruesome poem.

Lizzie Borden with an axe
gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done
gave her father forty-one.

Think what you will, but the only thing in that little rhyme that is provably accurate is that Abby died before Andrew. Schmidt seemingly took the popular view of these events, and with it, built up a psychological thriller of a novel, looking at the events through the eyes of four characters - three real people and one fictional person. Lizzie is the primary narrator here, with her sister Emma and the maid Bridget filling out the last of the real individuals here. With them, Schmidt adds someone called Benjamin, a drifter hired by John Morse (the girl's biological mother's brother), ostensibly, to teach Andrew a lesson because of how poorly he treated his daughters. Schmidt allows each of these characters to tell their own story, in alternating chapters.

Before you dismiss this book as overly macabre and morbid, I will remind you that (as my regular readers will know), I don't usually read crime or adventure novels. However, this really isn't one of those; it's much more of a psychological study. To be precise, what Schmidt has done here is get into the heads of these people, and through their thoughts, we learn first about their states of mind, and with them, events surrounding the murders with some flashes back into their pasts. For example, in the parts focusing on Lizzie, every so often Schmidt adds the line "The clock on the mantle ticked ticked" (hence, the title of this review). With these repetitions of that one line, it slowly becomes an ominous and hypnotizing statement, with each recurrence. Doing this gives us the feeling that Lizzie's mental state is far from normal. Despite this, Schmidt also includes are flashes of clarity in Lizzie's mind, which makes us wonder if her condition (call it sanity, if you will) is increasingly deteriorating or just some kind of an act.

With Benjamin, the one fictional character, Schmidt takes another approach altogether. Here is a man with a purpose both to and within the story. Benjamin gives us insight into John in general, as well as into his relationship with his nieces, and with Andrew and Abby. More importantly, because of John's malicious intent for sending Benjamin to the Borden home, both John and Benjamin then become suspects in the murders, a theory that comes totally out of Schmidt's vivid imagination.

What brings all of this together is Schmidt's writing style throughout this novel, which I found both fascinating and disturbing. While on the one hand Schmidt gives each of her characters very distinctive voices, she also instills in all of them some level of discomfort. Bridget's distress starts out as annoyance in her treatment as an employee, and later the inability to cope with the double murder. Benjamin expresses more anger than anything else, which adds to the pain from the injury he has when Schmidt introduces him to the story. Emma's anxiety focuses mostly on Lizzie, as well as her guilt at trying to leave her sister behind and escape this toxic family. Lizzie's narrative, on the other hand, constantly moves between strangely erratic to a type of sinister playfulness. Into all this, Schmidt intertwines the text with dark, poetic metaphors (including quite a few involving sticky-sweet pears) that further contribute to the overall eerie and gothic atmosphere.

One might think that this would make for a novel that is overly depressing or disturbing, rather than a gripping or forceful read (can you call a book you've read on Kindle a "page turner?"). Thankfully, the descriptions of blood and the bodies were somewhat less gruesome than they could have been, most probably because of the lyricism of Schmidt's prose. Despite all this, while I think Schmidt gave us a lusciously written, masterfully riveting novel (no small achievement for a debut work), something is preventing me from giving it a full five stars, and I can't put my finger on it. Maybe it's because this book (unpleasantly) haunted me, and maybe I'm ashamed of my own morbid curiosity, I'm not sure. All I know is, I couldn't stop reading it, and for that, I'll highly recommend it with a very strong four and a half stars out of five.




"See What I Have Done" by Sarah Schmidt is available from Amazon US (pre-order), Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris 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.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Constructing a Criminal

 

Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh


Although their story is well over 80 years old, Bonnie and Clyde are infamous celebrities to this day; and while most of the facts about their criminal endeavors are readily available, mystery still shrouds most of their lives from before their meeting. This is just the type of sketchy fodder needed for exactly the type of historical fiction novel I love, and Jenni L. Walsh is the author that took up this challenge. In this novel, Walsh introduces us to a girl called Bonnelyn Parker, a church-going, studious girl who dreams of becoming a teacher and finding a way to earn enough to help her family out of poverty. Bonnelyn is also in love with her childhood sweetheart, Roy Thornton, who wants to become a journalist. Together, they hope to make a better life, and maybe even travel far away from the confines of their poor town outside Dallas, Cement City. First, they have to graduate high school. The problem is that money is tighter than usual since she's just lost her job at the diner, and her brother is out of work after an accident at the cement plant. When Bonnelyn's best friend Blanche gets an offer to make money working the bar at an illegal speakeasy, Bonnelyn has no choice but to do the same.

Anyone who has read anything about Bonnie Parker knows that what I've just described here is pure fiction. There's nothing anywhere indicating that Bonnie's real name was Bonnelyn, and there's no proof that she ever worked in a speakeasy. While both Blanche and Roy are real people, the actual timelines relating to their acquaintances are nothing like what Walsh puts into this story. Furthermore, Walsh even had Blanche only dating Buck Barrow, who was Clyde's brother, while in truth they were married and Blanche was his third wife. You could say that Walsh decided to play it as fast and easy with the few available facts, as Bonnie and Clyde did with the law. Purists will probably get upset with this, but frankly, I can't say that it mattered to me one way or another (well, except for the part where Walsh has someone sing "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1927, when it didn't come out until 1929). Call me a hypocrite if you will, because I've panned books for smaller violations than this, but I'm not going to disparage this book (well, at least not completely). You see, my thinking here is, if you can overlook historical inconsistencies, then that's an indication that there's a good story underneath, and that's precisely what I found here.

To begin with, Walsh makes you believe (or at least want to believe) that the woman who died in a barrage of bullets after a bloody crime spree, started out as a good girl. This pulls my heartstrings because, naïve as it may seem, I have always wanted to believe in the goodness inside people. The character Walsh calls Bonnelyn goes to church, works hard to earn a few pennies to help her family, is a diligent student who fears God and has big, honest dreams. Walsh takes us through the systematic process of how desperation for money (and some unsavory influence from her wild friend) draws Bonnelyn to take the work in the speakeasy. From there we learn how that world pulls her in, how the people around her make it easier for her to continue, and how her conscience bothers her less and less as she falls deeper into this darker side of her world. I must say that what Walsh does here with Bonnelyn (despite a few hiccups along the way) is an excellent example of character development. What really impressed me, however, was how Walsh developed Blanche. I know Blanche has a supporting role here, but her transformation from being a flirt and bit of a slut to a woman deeply in love with Buck Barrow (Clyde's brother) was absolutely letter perfect. Together, the fictional criminalization of these two women was fully understandable, and that made the book perfectly captivating.

By the way, those hiccups mentioned above focused partially on times when I felt that Bonnelyn wasn't moving in enough of a liner direction towards her future life of crime. Mind you, I get that people vacillate, but I think this would have worked better if Walsh had made Bonnelyn a touch more of a defiant soul. Another thing that didn't sit completely right with me were the times when both Blanche and Bonnelyn used words that seemed slightly too sophisticated for them, which at times didn't fit well with the natural flow of the dialogue. I'm not implying that these women were stupid and didn't know these words; I just don't think they would have used words like "surreal" in normal, casual conversation, especially when these same characters are prone to dropping the final 'g' on their verbs. This may just be my own hypersensitivity, and other readers might not notice, and overall, I don't think these niggles (or even the inaccuracies) damaged the book for me. In fact, I can warmly recommend this book and I think this debut novel deserves a healthy four out of five stars (and yes, I am looking forward to reading Walsh's sequel to this novel next year, very much).




"Becoming Bonnie" by Jenni L. Walsh published by Macmillan-Tor/Forge Forge Books, released May 9, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris 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, May 27, 2017

The Volumes of Silence

Shtum by Jem Lester


The best word to describe Ben and Emma Jewell's 11-year-old son Jonah is "shtum." That's Yiddish for silent, so in other words, Jonah doesn't speak. Mostly, Jonah lives in his own world. Of course, Jonah's diagnosis is obvious; Jonah is autistic. So far, the schools Jonah attended haven't helped him make any progress. Now, it is up to Ben and Emma to find a place where Jonah can be happy, maybe get him out of his nappies and who knows but perhaps one day, he'll even start to talk again. While this seems a daunting task, Ben has much more to deal with than just getting through the tribunal that would put Jonah into the best facility possible.

People on the Autism spectrum and with Asperger's Syndrome seem to be a highly popular, if not inspirational subject for writers. What we didn't have in our collective consciousness before Mark Haddon wrote "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time," has developed into a topic of fascination. Mind you, I'm not saying writers are taking advantage of this condition to use as fodder; from what I can see, these authors are writing about their own, firsthand experiences. Furthermore, the authenticity that these writers show in their books is truly heartwarming (not every writer is willing to put their true hearts on their sleeves so publicly). 

Of course, there's always the problem with overkill, which can exhaust readers, and turn them off to a book out of hand (the old 'not ANOTHER book about X' syndrome). However, there seems to be enough variety in these books to keep us coming back. This is probably because the many nuances of the condition, which can affect people at so many levels. For example, in "The Rosie Project," Don Tillman's Asperger's allows him a high level of functioning. On the other hand, in the novel "Its. Nice. Outside.," the afflicted boy Ethan communicates with some level of speech, he's totally continent, but otherwise he has so many other problems, he'll probably never lead anything near a normal life. In this case, Jonah seems to understand quite a bit and reacts to things going on around him to some extent, but that stops short of verbal communication, making his condition quite a severe one. 

It is important to note that all of these books have far more going for them than just a character with Autism or Asperger's. So too with Lester's novel, where the central protagonist is Ben, who has much more to deal with than just where the local council's tribunal will decide they send Jonah for the coming years. There's Ben's running of his father's business, which he doesn't like doing, so he also isn't doing much to make it prosper, so money is a problem (not for the tuition for the fancy special school, but rather to pay for the lawyer and experts so the tribunal will agree that the council should pay for Jonah to go there. That's how it works in the UK). Another problem is that Emma just threw Ben and Jonah out of the house because she seems to believe that single parents have a better chance of gaining the sympathy of the tribunal. With Ben back in his father's house, their tensions from the past return. This becomes more evident as Ben starts to realize that what his father withheld from him all his life, he's suddenly giving away freely to Jonah, including some family secrets. Of course, Ben's drinking isn't helping, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. 

What heightens this book is that Jonah isn't the whole story here and neither is his Autism, despite this being a prominent catalyst for the plot. In fact, the story is more about Ben than it is about Jonah, and centers on Ben's relationships with his wife and father, as well as his own assessment of his own life. In other words, it is somewhat of a coming-of-age story that takes place later in life than one would usually expect. Furthermore, just when you think that things can't get any worse, something happens to shake everything up, and from that point on, the whole story takes an even sharper turn away from Jonah than before. (Sorry, I can't say more or I'd be giving away a huge spoiler.) Lester handles this transition so artfully, I was truly impressed, particularly because this is Lester's debut novel!

Although all this might sound all heavy and dark, Lester's real talent is keeping this story light enough where you could even say it is funny in places, without ever appearing flippant. Rather, Lester brings the innocence of Jonah's worldview into his narrative, which softens much of the harsher events going on around him. With his straightforward and easy-going prose, Lester creates an atmosphere that feels very authentic and ultimately honest. Of course, where there is such a high level of sincerity, there is also the chance that a story can get maudlin, but Lester avoids this with true aplomb. This was exactly the type of balance that this story needed, and because of all this, I cannot give this book less than a full five stars, and recommend it very highly.


"Shtum" by Jem Lester is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (UK iBook, US iBookUK audiobook and US audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase helps fund literacy programs) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

PS: Anyone wishing to see a truly excellent TV series about a family with a child on the Autism spectrum, I highly recommend "The A Word," which is a BBC series based on the Israeli TV series "Yellow Peppers."

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Harsh Reality with a Sweet Dream


The White City by Karolina Ramqvist


Karin is having a hard time this frigid winter. To begin with, her deadbeat, criminal boyfriend left her with their newborn baby girl Dream. Add to this that she has almost no cash left, no job, practically no food in the house and must use the least amount of electricity she can, so they don't turn that off. The worst part is she's about to lose her home and her car. Karin must find a way out of this problem, and Karolina Ramqvist's novel is all about her search for an answer.

Let me begin by saying that Ramqvist's writing is very appealing, with a fluid style that borders on the impersonal, the chill of which perfectly mirrors the wintry setting of the story. Yet behind this, Ramqvist is equally able to evoke the sparks of heated emotions, running the gamut of adoration for Karin's little baby Dream, to her regrets for getting involved with a gang of criminals and falling for the man who got her pregnant, and her fears of becoming homeless. This play between anxiety and serenity underlies the story throughout, giving the narrative an ominous feel to it, where any potential relief feels like it is always just beyond the horizon and practically unreachable.

That said, despite how great this sounds, it is also one of the reasons I had a problem with this book. I'm willing to admit that this may just be me, but sometimes there are authors that put too much "atmosphere" into their novels. We can overlook this if there are other elements to the story that balance this out. For example, if the character development is such that our empathy for the protagonist increases throughout the story. Another way to temper an atmospheric narrative is if the pace of the novel builds from the setup towards climax, which creates tension in the action. I also have seen the inclusion of unexpected escapes from the narrative with things like snippets of humor, or diffused observances, also works well to alleviate too much of a heavy ambiance.

That last example is what Ramqvist attempted to use to break the darkness, but I found these to be too few and too subtle to succeed fully, despite the more hopeful twist at the end of the story. Because of this, I found this book to be overall too monotone for my liking, and the many references to white and cold and snow that should have suggested light and hope, just felt dark and gloomy. Of course, I know there's a whole genre called Scandinavian or Nordic Noir, and certainly, this book would fit well into that niche, but usually those books are more crime fiction novels, and despite the criminals included here, this book doesn't really fit well with that. 


All this just means that while I believe Ramqvist is a very talented writer, I found this book a bit too depressing for my taste. Thankfully, it isn't a very long work, and knowing that gave me enough patience to read it through (and to be honest, I might have given up on it before reaching the end if it was even a little bit longer). That said, although I'm sure that this book will still attract readers who like Noir genre novels, it just wasn't my style and I can't give it more than three stars out of five.




"The White City" by Karolina Ramqvist published by Grove Atlantic, Black Cat, released February 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris 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, May 13, 2017

Ice and Cracks

Beartown by Fredrik Backman


Except for hockey, there's almost nothing left in Beartown, and it is only going to get worse, unless something changes. That something could be coming this year, since their junior team is finally good enough. If they succeed, who knows what that fame could bring? Maybe even a new hockey academy. Unfortunately, after the junior team won the semi-finals, something happened that changed everything, for both the team and the town. Now they have to deal with the harder question, which is, did this change Beartown for the worse or for the better? 

I have absolutely no interest in most sports (well, except when the Cubs won the World Series), and novels surrounding sports are usually ones for me to avoid. However, I did read Backman's novel "Britt-Marie Was Here" despite the focus on soccer. Although I'm no more interested in soccer than I was before I read that book, as most of my readers know, I adored that book. This is because what Backman did when he wrote that story is similar to what he did here, he wrote about people who are passionate about something, and how that fills their lives. Through their enthusiasm, we quickly realize that it can sometimes help them focus to the point of obsession, while at the same time it can also blind them. In this way, even when Backman goes into the details of the team playing their all-important game, we realize that this story isn't only about hockey; it is a metaphor to investigate the flawed human condition. 

One quote from this novel that's already showing up in the PR is "Never trust people who don't have something in their lives that they love beyond reason." Of course, this is technically referring to hockey, but I'm thinking that it's practically the theme of this book. By this, I mean that the enormous love for the various things that Backman shows us in this novel (hockey, family, a town, etc.) don't always make them trustworthy, they can sometimes make them reckless, which can also be damaging. Despite this, when your love for something is beyond reason, that passion also gives you the type of inner strength that can help you survive any damage caused by reckless actions. The balancing act that Backman plays between the positive and negative results of such obsessions is what I found pervasive throughout this novel, and what made it so amazing. 

That's just one reason to love this book, but there are many more. Another reason is how Backman succeeds in portraying this unusually large group of characters so vividly, blemishes and all. This was particularly important to me since I often get confused when there are too many characters to keep track of. Yet here, Backman's deep and intimate understanding of the people he's placed in Beartown practically forced him to give every one of them a distinctive tenor and cadence to their voices. This will lead readers to care for these characters as deeply as Backman obviously does, which in turn will lead to some laughter as well as no small amount of tears. There's also Backman's deceptively simple literary style of writing, within which he strews sparks of wisdom, traces of poetry and as already noted, flashes of humor.

However, one of the most artistic reasons to admire this book is Backman's pacing. Consider this - the opening line of this book is "Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there." You cannot deny how incredible that opening line is, and then he immediately begins to slide carefully upwards towards the climax, using a very subtle incline. Then, when he gets to the climax, it's like watching a small explosion go off. From then on, his narrative takes on a somewhat blurry, disconnected, almost remote quality, which colors the book's whole atmosphere from that point. To me, it felt like he went from a conventional solid narrative, to one that you could compare to describing shattered glass (or shards of ice, if you will). That felt like yet another metaphor for how the climactic event traumatized the whole town as well as the individuals involved. One mechanic that Backman employed to emphasize this was in how instead of using the characters' names, he referred to them using general nouns (a boy, the girl, a woman, the man, etc.). That could have confused me, but by the time Backman made this switch, I knew these characters so well that I instinctively knew whom he was talking about; which I think was pure genius.

As you can tell, I absolutely adored this book. However, some readers might be less than thrilled with the detailed descriptions of the hockey games in the first part of this book. I would understand if they felt this slows down the story, and I have to admit that I too rushed through some of those parts. Despite that, once I got to the climax and the rest of the story fanned out in front of me, I understood the importance of those parts of the story to the overall novel. In other words, Backman proved to me yet again, what an astonishingly wonderful master storyteller he is (as if I didn't know that already)! Obviously, I can't give it less than a full five stars. 


"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman published by Atria Books, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books* (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. 

* NOTE: this book is also marketed under the title "The Scandal," which will be available  in August 2017. 

You can find my reviews of Fredrik Backman's other works here:

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sins and Secrets of the Ancient Epicure

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King


Apicius was a rich Roman merchant and famous gourmand who reached the height of his fame during the first century of the Common Era. His dream was to become gastronomic advisor to the Cesar. After his previous cook died of mysterious circumstances, he heard about the slave Thrasius that had just come on the market. Since Thrasius was a cook for one of his rival gourmands, he knew he must make this purchase. King tells this story through the eyes of Thrasius, imagining a relationship that will bring Apicius fame and lead to a collaboration in writing the world's first cookbook, all while navigating the ever changing conspiratorial waters of Roman politics.

What drew me to this book was the idea of the combination of culinary fiction with ancient roman historical fiction. Regarding the latter, many years ago, I read Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" books, which began my fascination with this place and period in history. What amazed me about McCullough's books was the sheer volume of political underhanded dealings and intrigues that surrounded this early model of governance, elements of which still live today in modern democracies. Any historical fiction that takes place during these times must include a good measure of these complexities to be worth its salt. King decided to do this on a micro level by focusing on one family and the members of its household, who happen to have actually been at the eyes of some real major political storms.

As for my love of culinary fiction, of course, Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an early favorite, but I think my real fascination with this tiny genre started with the obscure 1976 book Someone's Killing the Great Chefs of Europe by Nan and Ivan Lyons. (Trust me; if you can get your hands on a copy, it is a "must-read" for lovers of both culinary fiction and murder mysteries.) That led me to other authors such as Joanne Harris among others, and now it always piques my interest when I see food entwined with a fictional plot. With both of these two things in place, King's debut novel was one I absolutely had to read, and I'm pleased to say that she didn't let me down!

My regular readers will recall that I've always said there's a fine line between just enough and too much information in historical fiction - particularly when it comes to times where there's an abundance of information. As noted above, ancient Rome is certainly one of those instances. King does a commendable job of keeping the facts from overwhelming the fiction here, although I also felt that she could have cut down on some of the crisis that Thrasius and the Apicius family had to overcome. This can lead to a type of roller-coaster effect, which can be a touch tiresome; too many climaxes tend to lessen the impact of them as a whole. However, knowing what King was dealing with here made me feel that this was only a minor problem with this novel. On the other hand, what worked surprisingly well here was King's artful use of smatterings of Latin into the text, without disturbing the flow of the narrative. Mind you, there were some instances where King used phrases that felt a touch too modern for the period (for example, would someone from the 1st century use "okay?").

When it comes to the food parts of this book, King delightfully describes the meals and different types of banquets, including both their distinctive gourmet elements as well as the ostentatious methods of these events, down to the types of napkins they used. Although I already knew that many of the foodstuffs adored by Romans of the time are either unfamiliar or disused today, some of the ingredients could bring about both shock and awe for even the bravest of eaters (like dormouse, for instance). This clearly shows King's massive research here, the crumbs of which (pun intended) she artfully merges into the action, making sure their flavors don't overshadow the plot or the characters themselves. Therefore, regarding the essential elements of the culinary sphere, again King did a laudable job of balancing a high level of accuracy of facts into her fictional imaginings.

However, at its basis, this story belongs to Thrasius, which I might call a multi-faceted love story. We have Thrasius' love of food, cooking, and devising new recipes. We also witness his falling in love with a fellow slave. Furthermore, we see how Thrasius comes to love his master and the members of his family. Shakespeare said, "The course of true love never did run smooth" and so as King developed Thrasius' tale with many obstacles. As a character, Thrasius is is one readers can easily identify with, and will find themselves rooting for him with every barrier in his way, making for a story that will grip us from the start. Together with this, King also didn't hold back with developing the cast of characters surrounding Thrasius, making them no less vibrant and creating a believable and well rounded ensemble. Overall, I felt this novel was simply delectable. If this, King's debut work, is an appetizer of King's talent, we should all hungrily await the courses she has on her forthcoming menus. I think this book deserves an appealing four stars (literary, not Michelin) out of five.




"Feast of Sorrow" by Crystal King, published by Touchstone, released April 25, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris 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, April 15, 2017

The Eves of Winter Stories

A Snow Garden & Other Stories by Rachel Joyce


In this collection, Rachel Joyce connects seven stories spanning from just before Christmas Eve through New Year's Eve. Joyce not only arranges these tales chronologically, she also links them with other elements. The stories here are:

  • A Faraway Smell of Lemon - Binny wasn't interested in preparing for Christmas when she steps into a shop to avoid one of her neighbors (reviewed previously, here)
  • The Marriage Manual - where the perfect couple assembles their son's new bicycle as their marriage falls apart
  • Christmas Day at the Airport - chaos ensues when the computers go down at the airport and a woman goes into early labor
  • The Boxing Day Ball - set in the 1960s, Maureen steps out and finds herself on her way towards her own future
  • A Snow Garden - Henry is still fragile after his breakdown, but insists he's ready to take care of his teenage boys while his ex-wife is away on vacation
  • I'll be Home for Christmas - Sylvia's son comes back to his humble home for a short break from his hectic life of stardom
  • Trees - on New Year's Eve, Oliver's father insists on planting trees in strategic spots 

As usual, Joyce hands us charm and wit as well as insights into the types of things that ordinary people experience every day. This combination is what made Joyce's readers fall in love with Harold Fry and Queenie Hennessy as well as her characters in Perfect. Hers are are the types of characters that evoke honesty and reflect the reality of the mundane. At the same time, they surprise us with just how extraordinary they these simple people can actually be. Yes, that may sound like an oxymoron, but that is Joyce's stock in trade. This idea is similar to what John Irving employs, but without the addition of absurdities (and endless digressions leading to more tangents) added to the mix. 

As I mentioned above, these stories are all very cleverly connected. For example, there's a red coat noted in the story "The Boxing Day Ball," and that same type of 1960s red coat shows up on a woman in adverts noted in a few of the modern day stories. Another example is how Binny's boyfriend Oliver in the first story ends up as the protagonist/narrator of the last story. Joyce also gives us a group of men dressed as Santa showing up in a few of the stories. Joyce ingeniously weaves these ties into her stories to be just subtle enough as to be noticeable, without becoming blatantly obvious. This, combined with Joyce's tender and almost simplistic writing style brings each these stories to life. Furthermore, although we could easily read any these tales on their own and in any order we choose, the adept compilation makes this book feel almost like a novel. 

I should note that as much as I enjoyed these stories, I'm not completely convinced that the short story is really Joyce's best venue for her talents. While Joyce gives us very sympathetic characters in each story, I sometimes felt that she didn't have enough time to develop them so that we could truly fall in love with them. I felt this most with the story "I'll be Home for Christmas," where just as we are starting to feel something for both Sylvia and her son, the story ends. In addition, I was somewhat confused by the story "The Marriage Manual," with its inclusion of some magical-realism that didn't sit right with me. 

Despite these small drawbacks, what Joyce gives us here is a delightful collection that reminds us that no matter how normal or ordinary our lives may seem, if you look in the right places, there are always some small miracles to be found. It seems to me that this message of hope is an appropriate theme for Christmas (or any time of celebration, for that matter), which even non-Christians (like me) can appreciate. This is why I'm going to recommend this book with a very strong four and a half stars out of five.


"A Snow Garden & Other Stories" by Rachel Joyce is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris and Better World Books.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Post: Co-Authors Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks.

Weave a Murderous Web is a mystery novel by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks. In this guest post, they talk about their lives and their books.



We both have a thing about New York City. Anne was born here and she never would have left except that her parents dragged her off to what was supposed to be a better life in Scarsdale when she was nine years old. She still refers to that time away as “The Exile.”

Ken was raised in the suburbs of Abington, outside of Philadelphia, but remembers clearly his first visit to New York with his parents, and his second with a school band in Junior High, and the third with his roommates from college, and... Well, you get the idea? The city made an impression.

Eventually, we got married and have lived in New York City since 1973 and raised three children, who have also vowed never to leave. We have walked these sometimes-messy streets from top to bottom, explored the various neighborhoods, parks, museums, and bridges, and we still feel we have things to learn.

So now, what do we write about? We write about people in situations that put them under stress and cause them to grow, but those people are usually residents of New York City. And the neighborhoods of the city are an integral part of every story.

Concerning our mainstream novel, Kate and the Kid, one reader wrote:

It's almost as though the city itself is another character in the book. The writer seems to know where all the best parks are, the best playgrounds, and exactly how to get there. New York neighborhoods come alive is this novel so if you live in New York City or want to live in New York City or have even just thought about New York City, you'll enjoy the way Kate And The Kid makes it all seem familiar. Stanford Gal, Amazon Review, Feb. 8, 2015

The same is true of our other books. Weave a Murderous Web, the chronological first in the Jane Larson series, involves a hotshot Wall Street lawyer who helps a friend and gets involved in a seamy matrimonial case that leads to murder, attempts on her life, and general mayhem. The plot unfolds in and around the New York State Supreme Court building at 60 Centre Street, the posh law firms of Park Avenue, the seedy back alleys of TriBeCa, and the tenement buildings of the less developed sections of the Upper East Side. There is even an excursion out of the borough to Long Island City and elsewhere in Queens.

The result? One reader, who is also an author, said:

I love books where the setting comes alive. Where I feel like I’m in the place, with people who live there. This is true in this novel. These authors know the setting and make it real. Conda Douglas, Author.

So, if you want to take a visit to New York City without leaving your favorite reading chair, we have some suggestions. First, a cozy mystery (Weave a Murderous Web). Second, a mystery that will give you chills (Mind Me, Milady). Third, a thriller with lots of mayhem (Praise Her, Praise Diana). Fourth, a mainstream novel in which a young woman learns how to let love into her life when she takes care of a traumatized child (Kate and the Kid). And Fifth, a fantasy in which a talking pigeon leads a brother and sister on an adventure all around Central Park (Things Are Not What They Seem).

Well over 50 million people a year visit our city. We hope you will be one and will open up your minds and hearts to any one of our novels. We look forward to hearing from you!


Readers can connect with them on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.
To learn more, go to http://randh71productions.com/blog/




"Weave a Murderous Web" is one of three books in the Jane Larson series, published by Melange Books, and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Synopsis:
No good deed goes unpunished. When Jane Larson—a hotshot litigator for a large firm in New York City—helps a friend, she is sucked into the unfamiliar world of divorce and child support. Jane's discovery of the deadbeat dad's hidden assets soon unravels a web of lies, drugs, and murder that keeps getting more dangerous. Soon, Jane is involved in a high stakes race to recover a missing suitcase of cash and catch the murderer before she becomes the next victim.


Praise:
“A sleuthing lawyer returns to the streets of New York in this mystery of drugs, murder, and financial skulduggery… the husband-wife team of Rothman-Hicks and Hicks has again produced a fast-paced, engaging story… overall, this is a satisfying read. An enjoyable romp involving a shady attorney and the mob that should make readers look forward to the next Jane Larson caper.” - Kirkus

“The action is breathtaking and the writing beautiful. Weave a Murderous Web: A Jane Larson Novel is a story that reminds me of the characters of John Grisham’s Gray Mountain… Jane Larson is the kind of character that will be loved by many readers… The plot is well thought out and masterfully executed, laced with numerous surprises to keep readers turning the pages. This is one of those books that should occupy an enviable place in your shelf if you are into fast-paced thrillers and compelling investigative stories.” - 5 Stars, Ruffina Oserio, Readers’ Favorite

“MURDEROUS WEB is a classic whodunit with classic New York City characters.” - Gimme That Book

Weave a Murderous Web is an enthralling murder mystery. It gets your heart pounding with action and passion, while simultaneously entangling your mind with its ambiguity. The dynamic duo has done it again. The husband and wife writing team of Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks pens another on-the-edge-of-your seat murder mystery. Engaging. Witty. Fast paced. I love the Hicks’ contemporary writing style. The narrative is full of delightful metaphorical statements. The setting takes you into the heart of New York City – it reflects just the right amount of ambiance… As the plot progresses, the intensity heightens, catapulting you into a surprising twist, then plummets you into a sudden, yet satisfying end.” - 5 Stars, Cheryl E. Rodriguez, Readers’ Favorite

Weave a Murderous Web involves a hotshot Wall Street lawyer who is a sassy, cynical New Yorker through and through. To help out a friend, she gets involved in a seamy matrimonial case that quickly pulls her into a vortex of murder, drugs, and dangerous games of deception.” - The Big Thrill

Weave a Murderous Web is a smart and entertaining mystery by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks that will leave lovers of the genre anxiously waiting for another installment starring the intrepid protagonist, Jane Larson… Weave a Murderous Web has plenty to keep the reader engaged as Jane digs in her heels, determined to get to the truth. Witty dialogue, supported by great writing and some understated humor, makes this book not only a must-read – but also a darned good one!” - 5 Stars, Marta Tandori, Readers’ Favorite

About the Authors:
Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks have been collaborating on books for forty-six years. Their first joint effort was a student project while Anne was at Bryn Mawr College and Ken attended Haverford. Since then, they have written over twenty books together. They are members of International Thriller Writers. They live and work in New York City, where many of their books are set.

Their Jane Larson series of mystery/thrillers involves a high-powered New York City attorney with a penchant for getting involved in situations that she would be better off leaving alone. These novels have been praised by reviewers for their gritty portrayals of city life, lively characters, fast action, surprise endings and highly polished prose. Jane is cynical and rebellious, but she finds herself drawn to the simple life her deceased mother lived as an attorney who served women unable to afford legal services. The first two books in the series are Weave A Murderous Web and Praise Her, Praise Diana, both published by Melange Books, LLC. A third novel, Mind Me, Milady, will be published in early 2017.






Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Life in Steps

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney


On the evening of December 31, 1984, Lillian Boxfish set out for her traditional New Year's Eve dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. Despite not being hungry after absentmindedly consuming most of a package of Oreo cookies while speaking on the phone with her son, she is determined to walk all the way there, thinking it might bring her appetite back. Walking the familiar streets of New York brings back over 50 years of memories, where once people knew her as the "highest paid advertising woman in the world." Based on the story of Margaret Fishback, Kathleen Rooney's book is a journey of imaginings using grace and elegance, together with humor and tragedy to investigate the life of a woman we otherwise would never have known.

The concept of this book is simply ingenious. On the one hand, we follow Lillian's paths along the streets of New York from the last hours of 1984 until the first moments of 1985. Her stops along the way include not only her original destination (her traditional New Year's Eve Italian restaurant), but a list of spontaneous favorite spots that have significance to her - from both her past and her present. While she makes her way, we not only get to experience the strangers she meets, but also the memories from her past that come to mind along the way. In this way, we get an overview of Lillian's New York life, and what a life that was!
Furthermore, Rooney gives Lillian a very liberal outlook on the world, one that is (for the most part) non-judgmental, and accepting of practically everyone, even to the point of possibly putting herself into harm's way. (Think about it, an 85-year-old woman, walking the streets of New York at night, alone, in 1984-5! How much more vulnerable can you make yourself?)

This is certainly my favorite type of fiction (although usually this happens more with historical fiction, and less with contemporary fiction - of which this is essentially both), shining a light on real people about whom we know little to nothing about, and Rooney's spotlight was as startlingly bright as it was flattering. To begin with, Rooney's writing style is so sophisticated and charming that you can't help but believe that Lillian was not only a talented writer and poet, but that she must have been even more beguiling than Rooney portrays her. Rooney's use of language is also endearingly witty, and I'm trying to figure out how many words in the thesaurus I'll need to use to describe this book, because it's already starting to run out of appropriate adjectives.

As you can see, I'm in love with this book, and that makes it terribly difficult to review without becoming so effusive that my readers get sick of me. So rather than go on and on with piles of compliments that get not only whipped cream but several cherries on top, I'm simply going to say that I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and it deserves more than just a full five stars out of five! (Note to self: where have you been all my reading life, Kathleen Rooney?)

(PS: If you want to read more about the inspiration behind Lillian Boxfish, you can go to Duke University's Guide to the Margaret Fishback Papers, 1863-1978 and undated, take a look at the Wikipedia page about her, as well as read the official New York Times obituary, which doesn't say all that much, I'm afraid. However, below you'll find links to some of her books of verse that I found available on Amazon - just in case you're interested and have the money for these apparently collectable, long out-of-print volumes.)





"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney published by St. Martin's Press, released January 17, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris 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.


In case you're interested, I found the following copies of Fishback's books of poetry on Amazon here:


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