An Intimate Portrait of Friendship in "The Ensemble", by Aja Gabel - Book Review

The Ensemble is the perfect debut novel - unique and authentic. Author Aja Gabel brings her musical background to the forefront with the Van Ness Quartet - four musicians who meet, form friendships, struggle, and evolve together. Gabel was herself a musician, playing cello from childhood, so she brings experience with her in writing of these musicians, the music itself, and their emotional struggles. 

We meet the quartet in conservatory, and each have a role in conveying their story throughout the novel. Jana is first violin and the clear leader of the group; Brit, a pretty self-conscious orphan, is second violin; Daniel, who has the least natural talent, is the hardest working of the group on cello; and Henry on viola is the handsome, happy prodigy.  Gabel provides vivid emotional narratives of her characters as they grow up together - through family and personal drama; reliance upon each other; distrust and envy; but always deeply intimate and intertwined.

As the book progresses, her characters mature in different ways, and so does her writing it seems. Her characters’ revelations about themselves and those to whom they are so closely attached become more accurate realizations instead of idealizations, and each member provides an acceptance of other’s successes and flaws alike. They are a cohesive unit that will succeed or fail together, and their futures hinge on the collective mood.

Gabel’s The Ensemble provides us with a different kind of story, and she skillfully succeeds with her first novel.  I’m looking forward to seeing more from her.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses), by Terri-Lynne DeFino

Having read fantasy and romance from DeFino, I wondered how a straight up fiction novel of hers would be. I know that DeFino dislikes being pigeon holed into genres since she sees so many books falling into more than one. Which is exactly the case with The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers. In fact, her straight up fiction book has both romance and fantasy neatly inserted within its pages.

Set in, yes, (you guessed it), Bar Harbor at, yes, (you’re right again), a retirement home for aging writers, DeFino quickly introduces a cast of diverse and thoroughly developed characters. Of the writers, there is Alfonse, a sort of elderly Dos Equis man, the most famous of the authors. Then, there is Olivia, his ex-lover and quick-witted marijuana smoker; Judi, the group stenographer who laments the realization of her increasing dementia, and Switch, the taciturn, good hearted spoil sport. On the employee side, there is Dr. Kintz, kind and flustered, as he tries to manage these aging autocrats as well as his trove of damaged employees. And, Cecibel, the physically marred orderly who becomes Alfonse’s muse; Sal, the massive black nurse who moonlights as Wispy Flicker, the drag queen; and, Fin, the convicted murderer. Yep, I have that right.

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Mini Book Reviews: Thriller Edition

The Walls
By Hollie Overton

The Walls, by Hollie Overton - Kristy Tucker works as a public information officer at a death row prison facility in Texas navigating between inmates, the press, and prison officials. Despite her longing desire to quit and do something less soul draining, as a single mom to a teenage boy and a dad with declining health, she needs the paycheck and security of the job. When Lance Dobson walks into her life, she finally feels like she has a partner with whom to share responsibilities and burdens. But there’s more to Lance than meets the eye, and none of it is good. Unfortunately, Kristy is the only one who he shows his sinister side to and it paralyzes her. Until, one day, her animal need for survival kicks in. Despite some holes in the storyline, like a death row inmate racing against the clock to file his final appeal, The Walls will have you racing to the last page. It’ll also have you wondering if there really is such a thing as a ‘criminal’ mind or does that pathos exist in all of us, lurking in our subconscious only to surface in those situations where we see no other way?

Published: 2017
Publisher: Redhook
Elizabeth's Rating: 3½ stars

Good Me Bad Me, by Ali Land - Annie, now known as Milly to hide her identity, is finally freed from the grasps of her murderous mother and is placed with a foster family awaiting one of England’s most publicized trials. A female serial killer of children in her own home, Milly’s mom forced her daughter to witness her crimes and keep her deadly secrets. Milly’s new home life is far from perfect. With a drugged out foster mom and a vicious foster sister, Mike, her foster dad is the only one who is really looking out for her. But are his motives solely altruistic? And is Milly the innocent she appears to be? This book ponders the genetics vs. environment argument behind criminal activity and keeps you guessing until the end who are victims and who are perpetrators. Struggling to find a hero in this story, it is still hard to put down.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Flatiron Books
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 3 stars

I Found You: A Novel
By Lisa Jewell

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell - Alice Lake, eccentric map making artist and single mother of three all from different dads, finds a man stoically sitting on the beach in front of her house in the rain. Frank, as she dubs him because he has lost all memory of himself, stays in her guesthouse and inches into her heart as they try to uncover his past. As the story unravels and the connections between Frank, Alice’s house, and her town deepen, we are faced with the dilemma that Frank is either a murderer or in grave danger because he was witness to one. Which will it be? Jewell’s character development and scenery description elevate this mystery into more than just a riveting story.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Atria Books
                                             Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

The Last Mrs. Parrish, by Liv Constantine - Amber has one goal in life, to become the wife of a New England social and financial elite. And she has her sights set on one mister in particular: Jackson Parrish. Unfortunately for her, he’s currently married to his soul mate, Daphne. But Amber will not be sidelined by something silly like true love. Her calculated moves allow her to worm herself deeper and deeper into the Parrishes’ lives until she’s exactly where she wants to be. Or is she? Despite seemingly playing Daphne like the stupid, spoiled rich girl that she is, perhaps Amber has misjudged Daphne’s perceptiveness. Also, has she overestimated Jackson’s suitability as the perfect mate? ‘Be careful what you wish for’ and ‘all appearances are not what they seem’ are clichés that will run through your mind as you churn to the finish of this book.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Harper
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

The Lengths Parents Will Go for Their Children in "Harmony", by Carolyn Parkhurst - Book Review

I recommend this book to any parent. Is it a parenting book? No. Is it a how-to or a self-help? No. It isn’t even non-fiction, it is a novel about a family. A mom and a dad with one daughter who is “neurotypical” (Read: normal) and one daughter who is ultimately diagnosed with “pervasive development disorder, not otherwise specified” (Read: somewhere on the autism spectrum with possibly some ADHD, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, we’re not really sure what else or how to treat her). 

Harmony alternates being told by the precocious, younger daughter, Iris, and the adoring but barely keeping it together mom, Alexandra. The family’s journey through diagnosis and figuring out how best to care for Tilly and her issues leads them to a rural locale outside of D.C. There, they are going to help a gregarious, somewhat mysterious leader, Scott Bean, set up Camp Harmony where they will live semi-off the grid and help other families with problem children. Sound like a cult? Yeah, it did to me too.

Harmony: A Novel
By Carolyn Parkhurst

And that is the major plot line. But, at its center, this book is about the lengths parents will and must go in order to care for those ‘not’ normal children. And about how raising such children is both incredibly painful and simultaneously joyous. Because while such a child “can’t do” and “doesn’t have”, that child might also possess exceptional skills and talents that are a true wonder to experience. About how, yes, the child may be wounded on many levels but also gifted on countless others.

But, for these parents, how do they walk that precarious tight rope of praising their child’s Mensa-level brain and cringing in mortification as that same child is compelled to lick every surface in each public place they go? Parkhurst’s addressing of these issues and writing of her characters made me certain she had specifically dealt with similar circumstances. After reading up on her, I learned that she, in fact, has a son with Asperger’s and a second ‘normal’ child.

I think Harmony is a love letter to both of her children. But she writes that letter around a tense story line that keeps you turning the pages. There is some ominous foreshadowing along the way about a time ‘after’ Camp Harmony and even some brief interludes written by Tilly herself about ‘what happened.’ As you read, you’re never quite sure if Scott Bean is a Billy Graham or a Jim Jones and if the story will end in the singing of Kumbaya around the camp fire or a Jamestown – which makes it impossible to put down.

Parkhurst weaves a captivating story around a desperate family’s need to find salvation. The result is an explosive novel with a deep well of emotions that is definitely worth your time.

Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books

Elizabeth's rating 5 stars

Facing Cancer From a Surprising Source: "All You Could Ask For", by Mike Greenberg - Book Review

Mike Greenberg, most commonly known as Greenie and the co-host of ESPN’s Mike & Mike, writes a novel from the perspective of three women. Huh? I was immediately skeptical. As metrosexual and into clothes shopping as Greenie is, at heart, he’s a sports nerd and I doubted he’d be able to convincingly shift into a women’s voice without sounding insincere. I was wrong.

Written as a tribute to his dear friend Heidi who lost her battle with breast cancer, Greenberg’s All You Could Ask For centers around three women, Brooke, Samantha and Katherine, who begin the story completely unconnected to one another. By the end, they have forged friendships through their shared experience that will bind them together for the rest of their lives.

While Greenberg occasionally drops in a silly cliché (no woman ever seriously says a guy makes her quiver), his insight into the female psyche is quite prophetic. He writes about broken hearts, loneliness, motherhood, and the depths of female friendship in ways that have you forgetting he’s a male author as you read.

He writes a touching story about a touchy topic. Cancer hits people where it finds them, and not all cancer sufferers handle their diagnoses in the same way. Even as a reader, I found myself judging certain characters’ reactions to their brushes with cancer but Greenie does this on purpose, I think. He does it to hammer home the idea that it is up to every person, in this book, every woman, to decide how and what to do with her body. Her body, her choice. In that vein, Greenberg speaks to a broader issue than cancer, whether he means to or not.

All You Could Ask For is a tearjerker, but in a mostly upbeat way. While cancer is the underlying common thread, Greenberg’s focus is the bonds that can be forged between women who truly need, love, and respect one another and how unassailable those bonds are once in place.

Kudos to Greenie for having the courage to write this book, doing it so well, and so beautifully honoring the life of his friend, Heidi. On top of his meaningful story, he contributed all of his profits from the book to The V Foundation for Cancer Research to combat breast cancer.

Published: 2013
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks

Elizabeth's rating: 3 ½

Dark and Moody: "The Blind Assassin", by Margaret Atwood - Book Review

It’s dark and moody. It’s a puzzle with a few missing pieces, and that last piece stays missing until you’re just about ready to throw in the towel. But then that moment of realization finally happens, and you think, really, it was there all along. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin ferries us along multiple streams - stories within a story - and brings them all together somehow.

The Blind Assassin: A Novel
By Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin is the sub-story to a greater narrative. There are two sisters, Iris and Laura, growing up wealthy, but sheltered and naive. Their mother dies early, their father struggles in business and relationships, and the girls are raised by the hired help. The sisters struggle through a series of tutors, small-town events, and their father’s dying button factory with a war and depression as the backdrop. While not worldly, older sister, Iris is practical. Laura, on the other hand is idealistic, very literal, and resists social norms for the sake of decorum.

At a young age, Iris is married off by her struggling father to an older, ’new money’ industrialist to seal a business deal. Young Laura struggles to find her place in her new environment with Iris and her husband, and both sisters have ideas of their places in the world and agendas of their own.

Within this emotional travail, another thread runs through the book, where we track two lovers meeting in secret, weaving their own story of The Blind Assassin, a science fiction adventure. Who are these paramours? And from whom are they hiding? What is the significance of this alien planet and warring creatures they’ve created?

Relaying the tale is Iris in her later years. We learn a lot from Iris about her life, her sister’s, and the events that led to her sister’s death. “It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning…” There is no one in the book who does not carry some burden of guilt of some sort. Which I suppose is real enough. Yes, it’s all rather depressing.

Atwood’s ability to undulate between the stories is expert and creative. But the book is also long and tedious at times. My feelings are mixed about it overall, but I’m curious enough to give Atwood another try since she has a long list of awards and recognition. Perhaps my expectations were too high on this one.

Published: 2000
Publisher: Anchor Books

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars

"The Done Thing", by Tracy Manaster - Book Review

A decades’ old murder. The killer on death row. The family he destroyed and left behind picks up the fractured pieces of their lives and moves forward.

The Done Thing
By Tracy Manaster

Now, his daughter Pam is grown and the family fault lines have shifted some. Aunt Lida may have raised Pam as her own but she wasn’t. And Pam may have loved Aunt Lida and Uncle Frank like her parents, but they weren’t. The frailty of these family relationships plays out blatantly in this story. When Pam and Lida’s secrets are revealed to one another, the harshness of the cause and effect on both of them threatens to tear apart their already tenuous relationship.

And while Clarence, the death row inmate, should be the only bad guy in the story, he isn’t always. The shock waves the murder sent through these people’s lives results in some unseemly behavior by characters who were initially victims.

But none of us is all bad and none all good, right? This includes the guy locked up and waiting for the needle. As much as you want the murder story to change, it doesn’t. But through the unfolding of the story, you see the weaknesses in all of the characters, not just the killer. And somehow it’s comforting. While this family’s messiness is greater than most, the familial struggles are all relatable. Love, jealousy, fear, pain. Manaster hits on all of them and tells a good yarn along the way.

No one would ever wish a similar horror on a family, but how far away are any of us, really, from taking things one step too far? A step from which there is no coming back?  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Tyrus Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3½ stars 

True Food Porn in "Sweetbitter", by Stephanie Danler - Book Review

Sweetbitter started off like a lightning bolt and ended more like a summer drizzle.

Danler’s insight into the world of high-end restauranting is razor sharp. Only a former wait staffer could have written this book. Her precise writing on the inner workings of an upscale New York eatery and the camaraderie of the staff ring completely true.

Sweetbitter: A novel
By Stephanie Danler

Her food analogies are more luxurious than her descriptions of sex - and usually more arousing. You can taste the food on your tongue, feel the drink on your lips, and see the setting in your mind. Her take on fresh figs: “There was a teardrop at one end, and I put it on my tongue. I felt undressed. I tore them apart. They were soft, the pink interior lazily revealing itself.”

Another trick Danler mastered was not divulging the main character’s name until half way through the book. I was stunned at the revelation, but as soon as I saw her name written across the page, I realized it was the first time I had seen it.

Her characters are almost caricatures of themselves but in a way that works. Take Sasha, the Russian bar back who calls the main character Baby Monster. He speaks fluent English, but doesn’t bother to “adhere to its rules.” He is simultaneously endearing and biting with his blunt truisms that you can somehow forgive because of his foreignness.

Inevitably, there is a love triangle, and that is where the story loses its punch. Danler should have kept the focus on the dining, drinking, and escapades of the employees because the love story is overwrought and plays out too slowly. By the end, I cared less about who ended up with whom, I just wanted it over.  

Danler’s success is her descriptive writing. She pens a five-page description of a hangover so bone crushing that it is enough to make even the mildest of partiers want to go to rehab.

For a first novel, her metaphoric turns and use of words to evoke image is beyond reproach. And her story telling will invariably improve. I can’t wait to read whatever she chooses to educate us on next.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Knopf

Elizabeth's rating: 3 ½ 

For Open Minds and Music Fans: "Long Way Gone", by Charles Martin - Book Review

This is a book I picked up at Book Expo, as an advance reader’s copy.  Many of the authors whose books I receive at Expo are completely unknown to me - which makes for exciting discoveries along with some disappointments. Long Way Gone fits somewhere in between.

I picked up the book from my very large “to be read” stack because of the subject matter - a teenager rejects all he knows and takes off for Nashville to begin a music career. Hardship ensues, and he takes a long, crooked path back home, which sounds a bit hackneyed, but it’s not quite a fairy tale. There were two things I did not expect about Long Way Gone - first, the depth of description and knowledge of the music industry; and second, that it’s Christian-themed. Not familiar with Charles Martin’s writing, I’d no idea what to expect, and the religious tone is not at all aggressive. What I got was a soulful and thoughtful look at and man’s intrepid life. 

Long Way Gone
By Charles Martin

Martin begins the novel in present day, with a middle-aged man, Cooper, seasoned with his life’s extreme heartache’s. As we progress, we go back in time to visit Cooper’s childhood in Leadville, Colorado; adolescence performing with his father; and the characters who confront him with opportunity - both good and bad - along the way. Cooper has a natural gift of music that affects people in transcendent ways. He’s influenced by his father, a traveling tent preacher. We experience his break with his father, journey to Nashville, discovery of the love of his life, his steep fall, and his guardian angel. Throughout the pain, we see a good man that’s made a few wrong turns - detours that make it all the more real, though the story is certainly a unique one.

All of us could probably use a little faith, and I don’t mind a message of a broken spirit, hope, and redemption wrapped in a well-chronicled story.  And I certainly enjoyed Martin’s profound grasp of music and its capacity for strong emotional reactions. Something with which I definitely connected.

Martin is a good storyteller, easy to read, and I appreciate the fact that not everything is neatly tied up in a bow. An accomplished writer with a solid fan base, a previous Martin book is being turned into a film - The Mountain Between Us - with Kate Winslet next year.  While I probably won’t read the book, count me in to see the screen version.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

A Thrilling Character Study in "Before the Fall", by Noah Hawley - Book Review

Now THIS was the thriller that I searched for all summer and finally found in the fall.

Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall runs the gamut. He masterfully writes a solid mystery with in-depth character development and a fine-tuned examination into human weakness and capacity for survival. 

No spoiler alert: The plot all revolves around the crash of a private jet into the Atlantic Ocean, which happens in the first few pages. Shockingly, two survivors surface in the immediate aftermath. Their story alone might have been the sole focus of the book but, fifty pages in, that part of the story is mostly forgotten which just demonstrates the strength of the remainder of the book.  

Before the Fall
By Noah Hawley

Hawley uses the flashback technique with precision. He develops the character of each passenger on the plane through specifically designated chapters giving glimpses into their lives ‘before the fall’.

He also offers keen insight into the minds and lives of the elite wealthy. Not the kind of people who have two Mercedes and a beach house. The kind that own islands and skyscrapers. He exposes how that type of wealth can be shackling, albeit with gold, and can lead to incredibly flawed decision making.

Mental illness and obsession also play a role in the story. Specifically, how the harmful actions of someone with an unsound mind seem so insane to the outside world, yet completely justifiable in the mind of the one with the illness.

The thread tying everything together is finding the answer to one question: why did that plane fall out of the sky? Mechanical malfunction? Pilot error? Espionage? Terrorism? Revenge? Delving into the psyches of all the main players makes each of these a possibility but, obviously, in the end, there is only one answer. And it is shocking both in its unexpectedness and its simplicity.

This was my first read of Hawley’s but it will definitely not be my last.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ stars