Monday, May 2, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Eternity by Aaron Thier

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.


Mr. Eternity by Aaron Thier (available on August 9th) is a very odd book. . .odd in a very good way.

There are multiple separate storylines, told in distinct, alternating points of view, taking place over the course of centuries from the distant past to far into the future. Each narrator has a voice appropriate to his or her time period, social class, and education level, making the novel a rather jolting adventure to read. At first, the storylines seem to be linked only by the appearance in each person’s life of a mysterious wanderer named Daniel Dafoe (not the Daniel Dafoe, he says, but there is some ambiguity, since nothing Dan says can be taken literally.)

Daniel Dafoe is on an eternal quest to find the love of his life, Anna Gloria. She’s always just around the bend. Sometimes he thinks she was someone he knew and didn’t recognize until too late; other times, he thinks he has found her but realizes it isn’t her. But the quest drives him on.

As the reader travels deeper into the lives of the narrators more links become apparent, stitching together a remembered history of time–the details are not important, only the essence. The novel is a warning against climate change, but also presents a fatalistic view that the change is inevitable. No warning will prevent the world’s end, but it doesn’t matter because the world has ended many times. In Dafoe’s eyes, everything was once wilderness and is again. The civilization in between was not so impressive either. Yet, except for missing Anna Gloria, he is eternally content with things as they are. Those who come into contact with him try, with varying degrees of success, to emulate his outlook.

At the beginning of the book, I found the read a bit too weird, too contrived, with elements of magical realism that didn’t really appeal to me, and yet, I couldn’t stop reading. Before long, I was totally immersed. If you are looking for something entirely different, I recommend Mr. Eternity.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Happy People Read and Drink Coffee by Agnes Martin-Lugand

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I saw this title and hurried to request it from Netgalley: Happy People Read and Drink Coffee by Agnes Martin-Lugand. It had to be a charming book about books and readers with some coffee thrown in. How could I resist? Here is the blurb:

Diane seems to have the perfect life. She is a wife, a mother, and the owner of Happy People Read and Drink Coffee, a cozy literary cafe in Paris. But when she suddenly loses her beloved husband and daughter in a tragic car accident, the world as she knows it instantly vanishes. Trapped and haunted by her memories, Diane retreats from friends and family, unable and unwilling to move forward.
But one year later, Diane shocks her loved ones and makes the surprising decision to move to a small town on the Irish coast, finally determined to heal and rebuild her life alone—until she meets Edward, the attractive yet taciturn Irish photographer who lives next door. At first abrasive and unwelcoming, Edward initially resents Diane’s intrusion into his life of solitude . . . until he can no longer keep her at arm’s length, and they fall into a surprising and tumultuous romance. But will it last when Diane leaves Ireland, and Edward, for the home she once ran away from in Paris? At once heartbreaking and uplifting, Diane’s story is deeply felt, reminding us that love remembered is love enduring.

It’s possible I’ve read too many novels with similar premises in recent times and I’m burning out on them, but this one disappointed. Actually, despite the protagonist being a bookstore owner, books play no role in the story and there is much more alcohol and cigarettes than coffee.

The novel starts in the aftermath of the horribly tragic death of Diane’s husband and daughter. She’s devastated, naturally, and wallowing in her misery. She blocks out her in-laws and her parents, convinced that no one else could possibly feel any pain over the loss, which is all her own. The only person she can communicate with is her old college friend, Felix, who, conveniently, is gay, so there is no confusion over the status of their relationship.

She does own a literary café, but it was purchased for her by her parents and husband so that she would have something to do. It seems she then left much of the day-to-day running of the store to Felix, especially after the deaths of her family members. There are no bookish references or literary insights to make the reader think Diane is a bibliophile. It seems more that Parisian bookstore cafés are cool so she wanted to own one.

Felix has been trying to get Diane to emerge from her grieving solitude for a year. Tired of his hovering, she decides to run away to a tiny town in Ireland where she can hide from the world and continue to brood. However, once she gets there, she is distracted by her handsome, extraordinarily rude neighbor. She becomes obsessed with getting revenge on him for his nastiness.

Of course, after some back and forth bickering, they fall in love, despite all the emotional baggage they are both carrying. The question is whether their love will be enough to overcome all their problems.

The novel is short and moves along pretty quickly, but I never really found myself caught up in the romance. I thought the dialogue was somewhat flat and unconvincing, which may be the result of it being a translation of a book originally written in French. The book was long on angst but short on charm. If I’d been more prepared for a "second chances" romance, I might have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, the title that was so promising seemed to be promising me a different story than it delivered.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: quiet neighbors by Catriona McPherson

It’s been a while since I’ve read a contemporary mystery/thriller, so when I read a blurb for quiet neighbors by Catriona McPherson I decided to give it a try. It’s an oddly compelling book, with a slow build at first that then gets hard to put down.

Jude Hamner is the unreliable narrator. A young woman with a compulsion for cleanliness that has veered into the pathological, Jude has fled from her librarian job in London to a tiny remote town in Scotland after something unspeakable happened to her. She chose the hidey-hole because she had been there a year earlier on a vacation with her husband and she’d fallen in love with a used bookstore run by a kindly old man, Lowell Glen. (Another book about bookstores and bookstore owners. I can’t get enough of these!)

The old man is still there and he’s just as kindly. On the spot, he offers her a job and a place to stay. His mannerisms are odd, but she puts it down to old-fashioned politeness and loneliness and besides, she’s desperate. Because she’s terrified of being discovered, particularly by police, whatever she did must be criminal and pretty bad.

The truth dribbles out little by little, aided by the arrival of a pregnant teenager who claims to be Lowell’s long-lost daughter, whom he never knew existed. Her mother, Lowell’s ex-lover, is recently dead. Lowell welcomes her with open arms. Jude is more suspicious. It’s hard to tease out whether she’s overly suspicious or has cause.

But Jude can’t focus on obsessing over the daughter. While sorting the used books, she stumbles on yet another mystery. Years ago, someone was apparently murdering elderly residents of the town. Is the murderer still around?

This novel is entertaining, although rather farfetched. Jude is an intriguing protagonist and the daughter is a good foil. I had a bit of trouble with Lowell, who never really jelled for me as an actual character. I couldn’t quite tell what the author was going for with him. Maybe that was deliberate, given the mysteriousness of the goings-on in the town, but it detracted a bit from the story. Yet after multiple twists and turns of the plot, there was a satisfying conclusion. If you’re interested in a thriller that combines a bit of gothic creepiness with a bit of farce, you’ll enjoy quiet neighbors.

Monday, April 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Daughter of Australia by Harmony Verna

I’ve been waiting for this one! Daughter of Australia by Harmony Verna is an epic historical novel set in Australia in the early twentieth century.

Leonora is orphaned at a very young age. Her earliest memory is being abandoned by her father in the baking heat of the desert. If not for the fortuitous passage of a Good Samaritan (a one-time miner, now laboring wherever he can find work), Leonora would never have survived. She is sent to an orphanage to be brought up by a gentle priest who is fighting his own demons.

At the orphanage, she makes one friend, a boy named James who has been there since infancy. James can’t abide cruelty and when he sees the other children mistreating Leonora, he takes her under his wing.

The orphanage is far from idyllic, but it’s much better than what life has in store. James is discovered by an aunt who comes from Ireland to claim him. A sturdy, strong, patient boy, James is set to hard labor in the unforgiving Australian farmland. Leonora is adopted by a wealthy American couple and is moved to the United States. Although provided with every material comfort, Leonora is denied any semblance of warmth. Her life is controlled every minute by a woman who seems bent on wringing any sense of self from Leonora. Perhaps the woman’s cruelest action is to coerce Leonora into marrying a wealthy, cruel man whom Leonora could never love.

The lives of these two protagonists is about as bitterly unhappy as two people could be. But they are resilient.

Leonora’s husband’s job takes them to Australia where she blossoms, finding strength as she rediscovers who she is. Fate brings James back into her life, offering hope to them both.

This is a lush love story set against the backdrop of a harshly beautiful frontier. The struggles of the characters are heart-breaking and you’ll find yourself rooting for goodness to triumph over cruelty.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

For an example of the importance of voice in a novel, I recommend The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (Release date, May 3, 2016). From Meridian (Meri) Wallance’s first musings in the prologue, I was caught by the voice of this extraordinary protagonist.

Meri is a brilliant young woman who is fascinated by birds. She studies biology at the University of Chicago and dreams of becoming an ornithologist. She wants to know not just how birds fly but why. Throughout the novel, the bird (crow) imagery serves as a lovely metaphor for Meri herself and for her peers.

Meri is in school as the U.S. enters into WWII. Some of Meri’s fellow students enlist. Friends are dying. And she takes her first class with Professor Alden Whetstone, a physicist who enthralls her with his intelligence, enthusiasm, and purpose. He is likewise impressed with her. (I expect he was excited to find a woman smart enough to appreciate his brilliance.) They spend considerable time together. Eventually, they end up in bed. They are in love. (He's at least 20 years older than she is.)

Alden is tapped to go to Los Alamos to work on a secret government experiment. He is thrilled. Meri, less so. Although they have to spend the war years apart, they marry. Meri graduates and is accepted into a graduate program at Cornell. Nevertheless, after essentially no debate on the matter, she moves to Los Alamos to be with her husband–on a trial basis. She intends to defer admission for a year. Alden, of course, has a different view. She’s his wife, after all.

This is a story of sacrifice, misunderstanding, failure to communicate, and a love that falls far short of the ideal but that is, nevertheless, love. Meri lives a life she never intended, struggling to hold on to her vision of herself despite society’s imposition of a different role upon her. She lives through times of vast social and political upheaval, but this isn’t a book about historical events, per se. Meri simply tells us the story of her life, heartbreaking in many ways, at times infuriating, but in the end, uplifting.

This is Elizabeth Church’s debut novel. I can’t wait to see what she writes next!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Call to Juno by Elisabeth Storrs


I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I love historical fiction about Ancient Rome, but until I discovered Elisabeth Storrs’ fascinating series (A Tale of Ancient Rome), I knew next to nothing about Rome’s near neighbor, Etruria. I had no idea how great their empire once was, the "capital" of which–the city of Veii–lay just twelve miles away across the Tiber. The Etruscans had a vibrant culture that differed greatly from that of Rome. In many ways, it was the more advanced. Intermittent warfare broke out between them, separated by periods of truce and trading. In Storrs’ first novel, set in ~400 B.C., The Wedding Shroud, a truce is sealed with a wedding between a young Roman woman, Caecelia and an Etruscan lord and general, Vel Mastarna. I highly recommend starting there. These books are addicting, and now readers new to the series can follow Caecelia and Vel’s story straight through.

In Call to Juno, the third novel, Veii is under siege by Rome. Mastarna is the reluctant ruler of the city, charged with trying to unite the various Etruscan factions to drive away the enemy. In addition to saving his city, he must save his beloved wife. It’s almost certain that one of the conditions of any truce would be to surrender Caecelia back to Rome where she will be tried as a traitor and executed. So a truce is not an option for Vel or for Caecelia. Mild spoilers to follow though I’m trying not to give too much away from the first two books.

Caecelia’s cousin, Marcus, once her most cherished friend, is determined to recapture her and purge the family name of dishonor. He has risen through the ranks of the Roman army and is now serving under the general besieging Veii.

Pinna, a young Roman prostitute, has also risen in the world, having become the concubine of the Roman general. Pinna is a sympathetic character because her chances have been so slim yet she’s made the most of them. Always manipulative in the cause of self-preservation, Pinna is learning to use her new influence and, in the process, learning about the general. And about herself.

Caecelia, now the mother of four, has denounced her homeland, believing that Veii should not only fight to free itself from the siege, but should take the war back to Rome.

As in the previous novels, the exotic setting enhances the story of love, war, vengeance and mixed loyalties. The juxtaposition of Etrurian beliefs with those of Rome makes for fascinating historical context. The well-rounded characters and their emotional depth allow each side of the conflict to be fairly represented, though no doubt readers will favor one side. In the best historical fiction, clashes of civilization are humanized to show the true extent of the tragedy. Call to Juno, The Golden Dice, and The Wedding Shroud are in that category of the best.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: 1493 by Charles C. Mann

My history/historical fiction book group will be meeting in a couple weeks, and our choice for discussion is 1493 by Charles C. Mann. This sweeping book gives an overview of world history since Christopher Columbus brought the eastern and western hemispheres together. Mann’s thesis, roughly speaking, is that the Columbian Exchange changed everything. He then sets out to provide anecdotes and detailed examples of the changes, exploring the economic, ecological, human health, and political impacts in different parts of the world.

The book is extensively researched and there are many fascinating historical tidbits. A few of the themes reappear repeatedly, like the spread of malaria and yellow fever and the extensive African diaspora that occurred through the expansion of slavery. These help to tie the narrative into a more cohesive whole.

However, despite being impressed by the scope of the book, I found myself getting bogged down in its somewhat digressive style and the mounds of material. To emphasize his point, Mann bounces back and forth in time as he looks at different geographical locations and repeats his observations, or refers the reader back to other chapters. It started to seem that Mann found organizing the voluminous material without editing some of it out was too complex a task. While there is much to be learned from this work, I had a bit of trouble seeing the forest for the trees.