In the mood for something different? The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau.

(Click the image to purchase the book) I took this picture in a mock-up of an alcatraz cell in a hotel in San Francisco the day before I was able to tour alcatraz.  There were a lot of tourists taking photos...They gave me plenty of room as I began staging and taking pictures of this

(Click the image to purchase the book) I took this picture in a mock-up of an alcatraz cell in a hotel in San Francisco the day before I was able to tour alcatraz.  There were a lot of tourists taking photos...They gave me plenty of room as I began staging and taking pictures of this

This is a book full of many pieces; it is a mystery and a love story; it is a surrealistic search for truth and a text on friendship; it is a story of madness, tragedy, and the bonds of sibling affection.

The narrator, a psycholinguist named Gustavo, is trying to find out what really happened with his friend and fellow bibliophile, Daniel, and the murder or murders in which his friend is involved.  The dead girls include Daniel’s fiancé; Daniel’s mistress, a prostitute he convinced to act as his maid and live with him and his fiancé; and a girl at the mental asylum (murdered by having pages torn from books carefully pressed down her throat) Daniel’s mother was able to get him in to avoid prison for the murder of said fiancé.  Also thrown in the mix is the bizarre, tragic tale of the fire that claimed Daniel’s beloved sister, Sophia. 

When Daniel goes to the asylum, Gustavo does nothing to contact his friend. It isn’t until three years later when Daniel reaches out to him with a cryptic confession and tales that are more fable and allegory than truth that Gustavo’s guilt at leaving his friend behind pushes him to pursue the truth.  The search will take Gustavo into a world of mental illness, strange policemen, and antique book dealers who may also trade in human body parts.

This book is Kafkaesque in that the lines between what is real and unreal are blurred to the point of being incorporeal. The stories Daniel tells Gustavo and the reality of his stay in the asylum, the murders, and even the officers investigating the death at the asylum all take on surreal qualities. A good example is this description of an unexpected encounter Gustavo has with a woman in a small room:

…there was a woman: branches of black hair falling over her shoulders to her stomach, her head tilting downward, and her fingers jutting out from her hands like nightsticks. She was emitting a faint reptilian groan and wiggling her body from side to side, as if she too was being rocked by the breeze, another larva in that room of half-made beings…The woman, sitting with great difficulty upon a box, her legs hanging inches from the ground, appeared like a quiet dwarf or a beastly bird barricaded into a corner of its cage in a zoo of shadows…Out of nowhere, she snapped her head forward at me, and in the grayish glow of the room I saw her featureless, amphibious face, her skin striated in parallel lines of withering flesh, her salamander smile infested with fangs and pustules of filthy cartilage.

She also lays an egg with a fortune inside which states, “Don’t believe anything.” Surreal.

What this book does well is keep the mystery intact; it keeps the readers questioning who David really is, what crimes he is capable of and the lengths to which he might go to cover them up.  It leaves you guessing about motives throughout the book, revisiting and revising what you know and what you think you know.  What it doesn’t do so well is weave the side stories the Antiquarian reads us into the narrative in a meaningful way. Also, the sub-story about selling human body parts has a purpose in the story but isn’t integrated in a manner to successfully tie it all together and make it feel like it was worth the effort.

(click the image to purchase)

(click the image to purchase)

This book foremost reminds me of another I read years ago: Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia. I can’t accurately recall an adequate summary of its content, but I can say that it left a lasting impression and is an incredible book and I would recommend it over The Antiquarian if you were only going to read one of the two.  Other books that you might like if you like these kinds of books would be Kafka’s The Trial or even his short story, “The Metamorphosis.”  Bruno Schulz also wrote a book of short stories titled Street of Crocodiles which would offer you shorter travels in this vein of fiction.

Ultimately the book is a worthy read.  The unraveling of the truth as the narrative closes is engaging and held my interest, but it didn’t convince me the book was better than my initial response to it. Read Artificial Respiration first; if you like it, or any of the other books mentioned, then you’ll enjoy the offerings Gustavo Patriau is giving in The Antiquarian.

Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, is charming, but is it worth reading?

click the image to buy now or pick it up at your local library

click the image to buy now or pick it up at your local library

Paris.  There is something about that word that evokes more than just the idea of a city.  There is an air of mystery and possibility about that word, of romance and wonder; it means old art and new fashion, and food. Paris, it can make you think about the bustle of life, passion, all which is good and bad in us flowing through that city.  That’s the kind of Paris that you’ll find in this latest book by Liam Callanan. 

The book is about the Eady family.  Robert is a novelist, not particularly successful, and his wife, Leah, has put her film dreams on hold to raise their two daughters.  They do well as a family; they have a good love story between them and dote on their daughters.  Robert takes little writing getaways every so often to work on his fiction, and the family has learned how to operate as a unit.

Except that Robert doesn’t come back.  Leah realizes he hasn’t been getting much writing done lately, and there is tension between them.  He’s gone so long the family doesn’t know if they should grieve him as one dead or continue looking.  Eventually, while looking for Robert, they find plane tickets to Paris and begin a new life there as booksellers. 

Paris is not only a land of discovery for them, it is also the home to Leah’s dreams of film-making and the fulfillment of a promise Robert once made to her.  Add to that an unfinished manuscript of Robert’s set in Paris, and Leah is left wondering: Is he still alive? In Paris? Or is he long dead? And if alive, why would he have left them?  There are mysteries in this book as well as new beginnings.

Many passages of the book, and, in particular, the ending, are well-written.  There is a lot to like in this story and the setting is well-used as a backdrop to help build atmosphere.  Parts of the book are quite charming, and I did find myself wondering what had happened to Robert.  Book groups will find plenty to keep discussions lively.

However, in the end, I couldn’t accept what the reader needs to accept in order to be charmed by the whole book.  There are characters and choices in the novel which are designed to help me understand certain situations, to empathize with the reasons motivating some of our characters.  I didn’t buy it.  The quality of the writing is good, the story is often engaging, but, ultimately, I can’t recommend the book because I can’t buy into romanticizing choices which are weak and self-serving.

Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Click the picture to buy now or find a copy at your library

Click the picture to buy now or find a copy at your library

Set during World War II and the years that follow, Warlight is a coming-of-age novel by Michael Ondaajte, the author of the acclaimed book, The English Patient.  Following the stories of siblings Michael and Rachel, and to a lesser extent the shadowy collection of characters who move in and out of their lives, including their parents, the novel is also a homage to the unnamed men and women who worked in Britain’s secret service and the price they paid as a result.

Two of the most interesting characters in the book come from the assortment of people that hover around the children: the rogues known as The Moth and The Darter.  Somehow, however, The Moth doesn’t get fleshed out in the manner of The Darter, even though The Moth is the children’s primary care-giver. The Darter is the story’s most interesting character, more so than any of the book’s protagonists, and I couldn’t help thinking that these are the type of characters at which Ondaatje is best; think about Carvaggio, the thief from The English Patient.

The book has an interesting setting, but suffers from a primary protagonist, Michael, who really doesn’t make you care that much about him.  In addition, the story suffers from too many, too easy coincidences; the pace isn’t well-maintained, the narrative is poorly structured, and many readers will not finish this book.  Save yourself the trouble and skip Warlight unless you find it necessary to declare to the world that you have read all of Ondaatje’s published works. 

A character-driven, historical fiction, Manhattan Beach proves Jennifer Egan can write a traditional novel.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan Cover.jpg

Jennifer Egan is a writer at the top.  Her work appears in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Granata. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Her newest, Manhattan Beach, is a work of historical fiction set in WWII era New York with a strong female protagonist, a missing father, and gangsters.  It is a good read and well-written; it will also require patience as it is a bit of a slow-burn.

Three characters dominate this book, Anna Kerrigan, her father, Eddie, and Dexter Styles.  In fact, the book opens with Anna and her father in the car on their way to meet Dexter Styles at Dexter's house on the beach.  Anna is eleven at this time, and the two men are meeting about a business matter.  Anna is a great character; bold, astute, and ambitious.  This paragraph, on the second page of the book, describes an interaction between Anna and her father; it is a great summary of Anna:

She thought he might slap her. He’d done it once before, after she’d let fly a string of curses she’d heard on the docks, his hand finding her cheek invisibly as a whip. The specter of that slap still haunted Anna, with the odd effect of heightening her boldness, in defiance of it.

Anna and her father adore each other.  He takes her on his "business" trips often, but when the book opens we learn that he believes it is time to stop this practice mostly because Anna is so perceptive and getting older.  Also, her father is having to find other means to make money in order to buy a special chair for his other daughter, Lydia. Eddie's story is as interesting as Anna's own.  He worries sometimes if his family isn't happier when he isn't home. He also worries about his relationship with Lydia. Knowing how he thinks, what he intends, and and what he goes through for his family, endears him to the reader.  The following is a good description of the Eddie and where he is in his life at the start of the book. Interestingly enough, you'll hear echoes of this paragraph from Anna as she becomes an adult:

He was aware of having reached an end. He shut his eyes and remembered today: the beach, the cold, the excellent lunch. A white tablecloth. Brandy. He thought of the chair. But it wasn’t just the chair that had driven him to Dexter Styles: it was a restless, desperate wish for something to change. Anything. Even if the change brought a certain danger. He’d take danger over sorrow every time.

Add to this the gentlemanly, smooth-moved Dexter Styles, and you've got a good story.

Manhattan Beach Cover.jpg

Talking about the characters' stories brings me to the one problem with this book.  There is a stretch of more than a hundred pages where the book develops slowly. One of the characters is dropped for a large portion of the book (in Egan's defense, it is done for a reason...I won't say more as it could be a spoiler, but it is that same frustration you get when your favorite character isn't even mentioned in a particular book in a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, which Game of Thrones is based on).   Anna does develop during this portion, but even her story seems to crawl a bit. Maybe this is designed to build tension, because you know in your gut that something big is going to happen: it is just delayed longer than you want to wait.

And something big does happen. The payoff is worth the wait, if you are a patient reader. Those readers who only like thrillers because they burn through pages like lit matches nipping at fingertips will find themselves growing impatient and, likely, put the book down. If you don't mind a little longer exposition, then you'll forget about your impatience as you ravenously finish the story. it is a satisfying book and will be considered one of the bests of this publication year.

The Great Alone: 2018's First Book of the Year Nominee

The Great Alone photo taken by andhereads.jpg
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Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Kristin Hannah has written numerous bestselling books.  Her 2015 release, The Nightingale, reached even new literary heights, and the movie is set to be released this August. If you haven’t read The Nightingale, you need to read it as soon as you can; new books from this year can wait.

This February (on my birthday, in fact, the 6th) her new novel, The Great Alone, will be released. I just finished an advanced readers edition and want to tell you why you should not miss this book; in fact, this book will be in discussion for book of the year eleven months from now (I won’t reveal any spoilers). 

Most of The Great Alone takes place in the nineteen-seventies. The book is the story of the Allbright family.  The family consists of Leni and her parents, Cora and Ernt. We meet Leni on the first page, along with the central tension of the novel:

     Leni felt edgy, too.  She was the new girl at school, just a face in the crowd; a girl with long hair, parted in the middle, who had no friends and walked to school alone.
     Now she sat on her bed, with her skinny legs drawn up to her flat chest, a dog-eared copy of Watership Down open beside her. Through the thin walls of the rambler, she heard her mother say, Ernt, baby, please don’t. Listen…and her father’s angry leave me the hell alone.
     They were at it again. Arguing. Shouting.
     Soon there would be crying.
     Weather like this brought out the darkness in her father.

With simple language, the author has deftly laid out the story right there on page one.  Two pages later, she completes the underlying story that will carry the reader through this complicated, emotional, and conflicted novel:

     It hadn’t always been this way. At least that’s what Mama said. Before the war, they’d been happy, back when they’d lived in a trailer park in Kent and Dad had had a good job as a mechanic and Mama had laughed all of the time and danced to “Piece of My Heart” while she made dinner. (Mama dancing was really all Leni remembered of those years.)
     Then Dad got drafted and went off to Vietnam and got shot down and captured. Without him, Mama fell apart; that was when Leni first understood her mother’s fragility…
     When Dad had finally come home, Leni barely recognized him. The handsome, laughing man of her memory had become moody, quick to anger, and distant. He hated everything about the commune, it seemed, and so they moved. Then they moved again. And again. Nothing ever worked out the way he wanted.

So now you understand the family dynamic. All we need is a location for the story to unfold. The Allbrights will receive that through a letter from a man whose son Ernt served with in Vietnam: Alaska.  It is there, in that wide, wild land full of darkness and danger, community and isolation, that this story of love and survival will take hold of you.

Kristin Hannah does a remarkable job creating an Alaska vast and deadly and still full of wonder and beauty. The supporting characters in the book can be as large as the land itself; the Allbright’s neighbors, the Walker family, are well-written, and their story is complex and nimbly interwoven with the Allbright’s; Large Marge is nothing less than a force of nature and will be a reader favorite; and the off-the-gridders, the conspiracy-theorist group, add an element of entanglement and realism that mirrors sectors of our modern lives.

The Allbrights do find a home in Alaska.  Ernt Allbright finds people who are like-minded and listen to him as well as a largeness of space which lets him feel less trapped.  Leni learns hunting from her father and self-reliance from necessity which gives her the confidence and strength she had been lacking.  And Cora, Cora learns how weak love can make you, and the strength it can give you to do anything to protect it.  

The family finds a routine in Alaska.  They learn how to survive there and make a place for themselves.  But underneath it all, the cancer of domestic violence is spreading.  All the dark, the isolation, the constant fight for survival, takes its toll:

     The sudden wildness in his eyes, the showing of the whites, scared Leni. She took a step backward…
     “It’s the weather,” Mama said, lighting a cigarette, watching him drive away. Her beautiful skin looked sallow in the headlight’s glow, almost waxen.
     “It’s going to get worse,” Leni said. “Every day is darker and colder.”
     “Yeah,” Mama said, looking as scared as Leni suddenly felt. “I know.”
Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

There is a certain chilling beauty to that passage, both in the description of the mother and the connection of the father’s temperament to the weather.  In places, the reflection of the violence and fury in the natural world in the Allbright father reminds me of Wuthering Heights.  I haven’t read that book in decades, but I remember the natural world being a mirror to the character’s internal struggles in that book as well as in this one. 

This book will grab you and twist your insides.  You will get angry; you’ll feel frustration, pity, and love.  I was surprised at how tangled my emotions were toward the mother, Cora.  I got so mad at her and wanted to wake her up, and yet there were times I just wanted to hug and soothe her.  The toll love takes in her life is tremendous.  Leni you’ll cheer for, but there is a sadness within her that will always give you pause.

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is a five-star book.  The only thing that bugged me about that book was the neatly-tied, pretty ribbon at the story’s conclusion.  It and Anthony Doer’s All the Light We Cannot See were side-by-side stellar historical fiction about the WWII period: I preferred how Doer let his story have its own ending rather than making sure it ended in a way to appease readers.  (I also think I may be in the minority with that preference.) The Great Alone had a little of that same issue for me, as well as one twist toward the end which caught me by surprise, but then unraveled too easily.  It made the final twist feel unnecessary and a little like a late addition to the novel.

Still, this will be one of the books of the year.  It is a wonderful book. Most writers will spend their life trying to write one book this good and fail.  Thank you, Kristin Hannah, for giving up law and turning to writing.  Readers, enjoy.

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

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Little Fires Everywhere is a very good book; here are three reasons why Celeste Ng’s previous novel is better.

Landing on most of the best of 2017 reading lists is Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.  It deserves to be on those lists.  It is a good family drama and will satisfy many readers.  However, her lesser-known, 2014 release, Everything I Never Told You, is an even better book.  Without spoiling either story, let me detail three reasons why the earlier book is superior.

First, the interracial issues that are a part of each book are handled with more depth, impact, and precision in Everything I Never Told You.  In Little Fires Everywhere, the racial drama concerning the adoption of a Chinese baby, and the decision about which woman has more right to raise that baby, feels less intense and genuine than the manner similar issues were dealt with in her previous book. In this latest novel, the issues feel like a plot device to move the story along and juxtapose the views of the characters, specifically Elena Richardson and Mia Warren.  However, the previous novel presents the interracial issue with many more layers; we see its impact on the Lee family throughout the entire book.  It shows how some issues, including race, popularity, and opportunity, never really go away. It shows the depth of these feelings and how they must be considered throughout a lifetime.  It reminds us how easily old hurts can resurface years after first appearing.

Also, the character depth and development in the earlier novel is more robust.  Little Fires Everywhere does have Mia and Izzy, both vibrant, interesting characters.  However, the Richardson father and, in many ways, the older son, Trip, are both rather flat.  Even Elena Richardson, one of the principle characters of the novel, feels a bit type-cast.  In contrast, Everything I Never Told You has an entire family, and a neighbor, with complex, well-rounded personalities.  Throughout the novel, the characters are dynamic; they change and grow. The skill and subtlety of the author drawing these characters and having them live their story is more artfully displayed.

Finally, Everything I Never Told You is just a more enjoyable book with greater emotional impact.  Not only does it hook you with the opening lines, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” but it also keeps you hooked with the question of what really happened to Lydia and why did this happen.  You will remember the characters and the story longer and feel more invested in the lives of the characters.  You’ll understand their failures and triumphs more fully, and you’ll hope for a better future for them all. Even the conclusion of the book is more thoughtful and skillfully wrought than in her latest novel. With Little Fires Everywhere, you will root for a couple characters, but you won’t think of them as much nor give their future’s but a moment’s thought as you close the last pages. 

I recommend that you read both these books. Little Fires Everywhere is a very good read: Everything I Never Told You is just a better read.

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The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

“Once upon a time—for that is how all stories should begin—there was a boy who lost his mother,” opens this intriguing book, The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly.  It is an interesting opening sentence especially due to how much it reveals about the book.  David, the protagonist of the book, is a pre-teen who is the “boy who lost his mother.”  He is a quiet kid who loves his mother and the stories they read together.  When he loses her and his family life is dramatically changed, it is to stories that David looks for comfort.

Stories are at the heart of this book; more specifically, as the first four words indicate, fairy tales are at its center.  David, who is prone to seizures and exhibits obsessive-compulsive behavior, finds that he can hear books whispering to each other and speaking to him.  As the story progresses, he literally steps from his World War II home in the English county-side into a world of fairytales.  However, these are not the brightly-colored fairytales you plaster cheerful pictures of on the walls of your baby’s nursery; these are the tales from the dark woods behind your grandmother’s house that you were afraid to enter. 

As in most fairytales, David has to undergo a journey and learn a few things about his self and his place in his now altered family picture.  David is confronted by real dangers and faces decisions that could mean life or death not only in the world he finds himself in, but also in the world he left behind.  This book should be considered a fairytale for adults.  It isn’t a perfect book, or even a great book, but if you delight in story itself and are looking for something a bit unexpected, then this book is a very good read.  

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The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

My favorite aspect of The Golden House is Salman Rushdie’s clear enjoyment of writing a story.  His sentences, the little diversions he takes with the plot, the side streets of language he travels down, pointing out literary and pop culture landmarks along the way; all these avenues of fiction were enjoyable to visit with him.  I haven’t read Rushdie since he wrote The Satanic Verses.  I don’t recall that book being as playful with language as this current selection. The plot, however, is more of an American epic than a playful tale. The Golden family is large in the scope of their reach and influence. The patriarch is a powerful man with three diverse sons and a past he has tried to escape.  Besides the family, the primary players include a Russian seductress and a young man named Rene (think Nick Carraway) who wants to be a filmmaker and views the family as source material.  He is not, however, an aloof watcher.  He becomes deeply involved in the life of the Golden's.

There are a number of interesting literary references the reader can make.  I’ve already mentioned Nick Carraway and there are definitely flavors of The Great Gatsby in this book.  There are also ties to both Roman emperors and, I’d say, Greek drama.  And Rushdie makes it clear he is playing with the Slavic myths involving Vailisa and Baba Yaga.

I was also amazed at how current this book is. Not only are there timely cultural references, but the political climate is ultra current.  The shape of our current social and political America plays as an unseen, yet influential hand indirectly impacting all aspects of the story and the characters in it.

The characters (and the mythologies they can bring to the story) were interesting to me, and I was involved in all their stories,  However, it was those same characters which kept me from loving the book.  I didn’t really like any of them. The narrator was the most likable, but some of his actions, which had resounding impacts, seemed to be done without any sense of personal integrity.  Then again, maybe that was part of the point; maybe Rushdie wanted the reader to be a little sickened by the whole thing.  But don’t get too upset; Rushdie does leave us with hope, maybe that is the ultimate takeaway from The Golden House.  

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love in lowercase by Fransesc Miralles

Coffee Cup My Wife Made Me.jpg

In a moment, I'll tell you why there is a picture of a coffee cup here. First, I want to introduce you to love in lowercase by Francesc Miralles.  This book was originally published in Spanish in 2010 and was translated into English by Julie Wark in 2014.  I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, quirky, effervescent (read it; effervescent is the right word) book from cover to cover.

Back to the cup: The coffee cup was made for me by my delightful wife on a Saturday night while I was out with our oldest daughter.  She created the design, cut the vinyl on the Cricut (a fascinating machine she really enjoys) which she received for her birthday, and ironed the design (yes, ironed the coffee cup) onto the mug for me.  Drinking my two cups of coffee out of it this quiet morning while the girls slept had me smiling, reminiscing about when I first met my wife and thinking about this book that I'd forgotten (and, coincidentally, read while in Denver shortly after our first date).

Although he is not a librarian as I am, Samuel, our protagonist, has a personality a little like the one I used to have. He is a slightly brainy, slightly lonely, professor of German literature who moves through life listening to a music all his own.  Samuel's life begins to change when he starts taking care of a cat who has decided, against Samuel's wishes, to make Samuel's house his home.  He names the cat Mishima (if you haven't read Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy, stop and put a library hold on it now...okay, continue reading).  For the sake of juxtaposition, it wasn't a cat for me, but a flea-ridden, half starved German Shepherd mix of a puppy panting outside the library in the summer heat that I took in (she is now known as Annie).

Obviously, since the title points to this book being a love story, there must be a love interest.  Gabriella is this for Samuel.  We first meet Gabriella in this moment:

When the light turned green, I crossed the street thinking about the fastest way to get home.  I was right in the middle when the light changed to amber. It was then that I saw her...Time suddenly seemed to stop, like a satori in the old man’s book.  Then the past shot forward with astounding clarity.

For Samuel, this moment takes him back nearly 30 years when he last saw Gabriella.  The moment he remembers with her had a profound impact on his life.  Whether or not the moment really happened, with her, and as he remembers, is one of the mysteries of the book.

My similar moment happened one afternoon when I had swung by the library after working what was then my second job, landscaping.  I had stopped by the office for just a minute, filthy from work, and was walking out of the office area when I saw a woman leaving the library.  I was immediately stunned and short of breath.  I went straight to Dave, who was working the front desk, and asked "Did you see that woman? She's beautiful. Who was she?"

Dave, however, had not interacted with her because she came in, picked up a hold, went to the self-checkout, and left.  When he responded that he hadn't noticed her, I muttered, to myself as much as him, "She's like gravity." That made perfect sense to me because I'd never felt such pull from a person. Interestingly enough, there is a similar phrase in the book, "like planets condemned by gravity to collide."  Dave may have thought my comment was weird, but he'd known me long enough that he took it in stride.

So Samuel has this aforementioned satori moment with Gabriella, but then time swings back into motion and she is carried away from him.  Again, our circumstances were similar, except I didn't even have a name for the woman who had instantaneously caused such a great disturbance in my simple existance. Both Samuel and I knew then that we had to find out more about the women who just made an indelible impact on our lives.

Miralles' book is also filled with a cast of equally interesting supportive characters.  In fact, the other characters are unique enough that some reader's complaint about this book is that all of their stories aren't neatly wrapped up. When you finish the book, you still sit and speculate about how some of the side stories might end.  I don't fault that in this book.  I like that there is still a life going on for the other characters full of wonder and heartache and triumph that we can only ponder about.

Of course, you can guess that there was a first date in both our stories.  For Samuel, it goes like this:

I found a free table next to a column and hastened to strike the right pose: man waiting for the woman he loves; first date. It’s difficult to seem natural in such a situation, so I asked for a coffee and looked up. Just then, two especially fluffy clouds came together to create a great big mustache in the blue sky.

     Easily distracted is he? Yes, again, that makes two of us.  When Gabriella does show up, he just starts talking and opens with a statement about watching the clouds and seeing the mustache.

Samuel's awkward opening is followed by this statement, "Gabriella looked at me as if she had some kind of weirdo sitting across from her."  Lol; again, that is so appropriate.  I think some days my wife would need both hands to count how many times she thinks that about me.  She tells me she has never met anyone who thinks the way I do.

You really need to read this funny, feel good book to get it.  I know there are readers out there who won't love this book because they don't like quirky characters or unlikely, comic situations, but most of you will be rooting for Samuel and feel invested in his story and ready for the triumph or tragedy that will unfold on the last page.  

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Memory by Phillippe Grimbert

If you’re looking for a book that is a quick read but will linger in your thoughts long after you’ve returned it, Memory, by Phillippe Grimbert, may be the book for you.  I read this book in two short afternoons, but have been thinking about its little nuances for months, resulting in this review.

The story involves the unraveling of a families’ past through the eyes of a quiet, reserved boy of fifteen.  The secrets he seeks to unlock involve his parents and their lives as Jews during WWII France.  Our protagonist has always had a sense that there was something else about his family, some silent “other” thing that was never discussed but was always present although not quite tangible.  This struggle to figure out what that “thing” is leads the boy to seek answers from family friends and journey into the past.  If you are thinking to yourself, “I’ve already read Night by Elie Wiesel” or “I’ve seen Schindler’s List, I don’t need to revisit that,” I ask that you think again.  This isn’t the same kind of work.  It isn’t as heavy in the same way, although it is haunting in its own right. 

What’s really interesting about this book is the way space works.  The book is full of short revelations and insights, often just a couple pages, some even less.  The space at the end of each of these acts almost as a breath, allowing you a chance to, in a sense, inhale the experience and think on it in the same manner as when you take a conscious breath.  This is one of those simple, concise works that pulls you in and then never quite lets you go…highly recommended.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

I gravitate to books about bookstores and libraries. So, when I first heard about Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan, I knew I had to read it. However, I’d mostly forgotten about it by the time it arrived and had somehow got the premise confused and was expecting a quirky love story, something along the lines of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, (a delightful book I’ve got to review).

Wrong; this is a literary thriller. I’m sure there are a thousand different ways to describe what that actually means, but for our purpose let’s just say it is a smart thriller not only concerned with keeping the pages turning and the suspense high, but also with developing a cast of characters whose motivations and lives are complex, confusing, empathetic, and mirror our own.

When Lydia finds Joey, one of the lost boys whose only solace is found in the Bright Ideas Bookstore, literally hanging in the stacks with a childhood photo of her in his pocket, she has unknowingly just begun a journey to unravel Joey’s past and what, if any, connection it could have to her own.

And Lydia has secrets; her last name isn’t really Smith. Running from a childhood trauma that put her on the cover of Time magazine, she has been hiding her true identity for over a decade. She doesn’t even share her secrets with her boyfriend, David.

And Daddy issues? What about Dad? Why does she refuse to answer his phone calls? What is he hiding from in a remote cabin in the woods.

If that isn’t starting to excite you, let me tease you with this: text puzzles. Joey has left Lydia clues that she has to decipher cut into different books in the bookstore. I was extremely pleased that our author didn’t just tell us about the puzzles, he presented several to us so we could see what Lydia sees and experience a little of the thrill of discovery she felt unraveling them.

There were a few things that bugged me. I’ll try to cover them without giving major spoilers, but if you want a reading experience unencumbered by my own quibbles, you might skip the rest of this paragraph. I couldn’t wholly accept the sibling relationship that is revealed to us. I can’t even tell you why, and the twist it provides leading to the books revelation I enjoyed tremendously. Also, the tension created during the confrontation and confession section was well-done, but it left me feeling like the book’s resolution could have been stronger, somehow. 

Still, this is a solid book; a genuinely good read. If you want a smart thriller with great characters in an interesting setting with the bonus of little plot puzzles made out of books, I think you will enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed it.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Several people told me,”Since you loved The Rosie Project (by Graeme Simison), you’ll definitely love Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant.” Well, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong. I was laughing out loud (giggling, my wife might say, but I don’t giggle) during parts of the book. I really enjoyed the pace and the character as the book opened and Eleanor was fleshed out and endearing herself to me, the reader. I love quirky books and quirky characters (this reminds me, I need to review a little book titled love in lower case by Fransesc Miralles). Also, the book is well-written; Eleanor’s conflicts feel genuine, and there is a weighty burden from her past that counters the books humor and balances well.

Still, something happened to me along the way. I got tired of Eleanor. The pace of the book slows, the humor feels a little more forced, and she just started getting on my nerves. I’m not saying this is a bad book; my wife enjoyed it cover to cover and excitedly gave it to me knowing how much I would enjoy it based on what she knows I like. But the book wasn’t able to maintain the level of enjoyment throughout that it promised from the beginning. I had a similar experience with Nabakov's Lolita and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Both books have some of my favorite lines, and display openings of such force, speed, and exquisite writing that I’d have to say they are excellent books. But the latter parts of each cause me to lose the awe they initially elicited.

The book is still a good read. There is a lot to enjoy, and you may be one of those readers whose affections for Eleanor does not wane over time. For you, my friends, I hope that will be your experience.

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Out Stealing Horses

The English translation of this Norwegian novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, was published in 2005 and was highly praised. However, I just recently found this book seemingly unloved on our shelves and thought I would give it a try. The story is about the life of Trond Sander and mainly takes place during two distinct moments of time in his life. At sixty-seven, Trond has lost his wife and sister to cancer, and his daughters are grown. He decides to live out the rest of his life in a determined manner in a small cabin. There are definitely threads of Walden here, especially early going, but only to the extent that the scene is set and our main character begins to have his personality revealed to us. The other portion of his life we see quite a bit of is Trond as a boy, just on the verge of becoming a young man. Through this we see a lot of Trond interacting with his father; moreover, we really get to see the events and decisions which shaped the sixty-seven year old Trond we are getting to know.

There is a lot to love in this novel, but two things really stood out in this novel for me. First, the credibility that the reader feels towards the author’s slow unraveling of Trond’s adult life into the sometimes cautious, sometimes manic boy that he was, is exceptional. Everything Trond is as a grown man seems directly related to how he handled the life and situations presented him in his formative years.

Secondly, and I really loved this about this book, Trond is not a victim. His determination is admirable in his older self, and seeing the formulation of it in him as a boy is masterfully done. He is told early in the novel, "You decide for yourself when it will hurt." Seeing how this germ of an idea is handled throughout the novel makes for great reading. Truthfully, the last chapter of the book was fantastic, it managed to drive the central thematic experience of the entire novel straight into me. This novel has a lot to enjoy: a determined life, parent-child relationships, the coming-of-age-experience, friendship, and even Nazi occupation. After reading this book, it feels like it will be part of your life for a long time. 

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