Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells'

I ask you this:  What would you do if you were able to change not only one life, but three?

And they were your lives.  

But it gets better:  The lives are from years past.

That's the basic premise of 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells', the newest novel from Andrew Sean Greer, the author of 'The Confessions of Max Tivoli'.

Greta Wells is a photographer, living in 1985 New York, and suffering the death of her beloved twin, Felix, and the breakup with her lover, Nathan.  Suffocating from a horrible bout of depression, Greta undertakes a radical treatment, which has unexpected results: She is transported to the lives she would have lived had she been born in different eras.

In 1918, she is the wife of a man who is a doctor stationed in Europe during WWI.  It is during this time that she discovers a young actor is in love with her, and she is tempted to accept his affection.  

Soon, she finds herself in 1941, living the life of a devoted wife and mother.  Her husband, as in the past life, is a doctor serving in WWII.  

Each life contains the same tensions and obligations and choices.  And helping through almost every era is her Aunt Ruth, a bohemian who encourages her to accept who she is and to make the choices that will lead to satisfaction.  

The same people surround Greta:  Her former lover, Nathan.  Her brother, Felix, and his lover, Alan.  All the same, yet not.  Hard to explain, but bear with me.  Each era has different social mores.  Some accepted, some expected.  And some remain hidden.  As she becomes more confident with each life, Greta tries to change the moves on the chessboard, and when she commits to the ultimate change, her 'life' will never be the same.

Author Andrew Sean Greer
Although most readers would be a put off by the constant switch from era to era, the author has clearly set up each chapter according to Greta's 'treatments'.  I didn't have to backtrack (something I absolutely abhor!); I knew immediately what was going on.  The flavor of each era was beautifully conveyed.  I could imagine the clothing, the furnishings, the social uproar over a forbidden love.  Surprisingly, the characters stayed the same, yet they didn't become stale.  

Greer does a great job in showing us the inner turmoil of a woman going through emotional pain.

But he did an even greater job in showing us how that woman took hold of her three lives and made a choice that would bring her the greatest happiness and satisfaction.

'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells', by Andrew Sean Greer, is available at your local library and independent bookstore.  ISBN 978-006-2213-785

Monday, April 28, 2014

'The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry'

Although I'm no longer a professional bookseller, I still love to read and recommend good books.  It's not often that I write a negative review, but there are some *cough* 'Fifty Shades...'*cough* that I cannot in good conscience recommend.

I'm attracted to stories that make many references to books and their authors (Jasper Fforde is a prime example), and bookstores.  Especially bookstores.  I can always tell if an author is a former bookseller; the references to the good/bad habits of their customers, the problems of merchandising, the problem of lackluster sales, the build-up to a signing event, only to see it either go down in flames, or exceed expectations.  And the after-hours drinking sessions.  All true.  

But, most of all, I'm interested in the interaction of the employees.  To read about a 'newbie' getting a job in a bookstore is somewhat amusing (I say 'somewhat' because I've been there, done that.  I wore high-heeled boots on my first day, and that is why I have hated them ever since), but reading about their sheer confusion is another thing.  I'm a huge fan of 'Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore'; it was amazing, and left a curious taste in my mouth.  But the employees.  What employees!  

And now we have 'The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry', written by Gabrielle Zevin, author of the phenomenal young adult book, 'Elsewhere'.  While 'Elsewhere' dealt with the afterlife of a teenager who is killed when a car hits her on the street, '...Fikry' is an adult book that deals with the despondency of a man who has lost his wife.  Lonely, cranky, hating his life, Fikry is in a slump.  His whole world has collapsed and his consuming isolation has many Alice Island residents concerned.

His bookstore, Island Books, is experiencing the worst sales slump in its history.  And to top it off, his rare, prized edition of Tamerlane has been stolen.  The loss, however, leads him kicking-and-screaming in a new direction.  He becomes friends with the chief of police, and he finds a connection with a book rep. But most of all, a strange package arrives in his store, setting off a chain of events that gives A. J. the opportunity to change his life for the better.

Zevin has created a love story to all things books and all things human.  She has opened the door to a world that I eagerly stepped into, a world peopled by characters so richly drawn. From Ismay, his sister-in-law, who tries to save A.J. from himself, while she, herself, is experiencing marital problems, to Amelia, the sales rep who makes him reconsider love.  

Author Gabrielle Zevin
And then there are the books.  The guy owns a bookstore, remember?  Each chapter begins with a brief synopsis and review of a particular piece of literature; 'Lamb to the Slaughter' by Roald Dahl, Poe's 'Tell Tale Heart', etc.  The reader knows that he's writing these for someone, but just who is that someone? Once you find out, you'll be delighted, yet somewhat saddened.

'The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry' richly deserves all of its positive reviews.  But that's not the reason I wanted to read it.

It's the books.  It will always be the books. Thanks, Ms. Zevin, for giving the world another wonderful story.

It looks quite nice sitting next to 'Elsewhere', snug on my bookshelf.

'The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry', by Gabrielle Zevin, is available at your library and independent bookstore.  ISBN 978-1-61620-3214

Saturday, April 26, 2014

'The Skeleton Crew'

Just the other day, I was channel surfing, hoping I'd catch past episodes of the brilliant BBC production of 'Sherlock'.  I had a mild hankering to watch Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman discover clues that the somewhat inept police department seemed to overlook. Besides, I needed my 'Cumberbunny' fix.

But I think the real reason I needed to watch the show again was because I was reading an advance copy of 'The Skeleton Crew', by Deborah Halber.  

'The Skeleton Crew' concerns a group of every day people who are obsessed with finding the identities of nameless murder victims.  It has become a strange past-time, or hobby, but when these folks 'hit' on a match, the search (some lasting many years) is well worth it.

These web sleuths share tips with the police, although not long ago, law enforcement wouldn't give them the time of day.  But with nameless victims piling up in morgues (and even boxes), the police didn't have the manpower nor the time to do their own searches.  So, it was up to the relentless amateur Sherlocks to bridge that gap and find names for those who had suffered the utmost cruelty.

This isn't the most pleasant book to read, but not because it isn't well written.  It's the subject matter; it brought tears to my eyes.  I continually thought about the victims and their families, the fact that most of them would never have closure.  I especially cried when I read about the police departments that treated the victims with the utmost respect and dignity by providing a grave, a tombstone, and a compassionate burial.

When the amateurs first began their searches, they had to depend on dial-up internet service, which, as we all know, was a joke in itself.  But times change; brilliant techies have made improvements, and now searches are speedier.  And as the word got out, more and more curious people became obsessed with finding clues, and they eventually produced their own web sites.  Now that facial reconstruction and DNA have proven to be valuable tools for law enforcement, the sleuths are slowly gaining ground.

The book delves into the jealousy and rancor of such a hobby, but it also brings to light the friendships that some of the sleuths share.

My only complaint about the book is the flow.  One chapter will deal with a man who has discovered a body wrapped in a tarp, and the next will explore yet another case.  I really wish that each chapter had covered each case from the beginning of the search to the conclusion.  I hated having to backtrack.  

Author Deborah Halber
But that's it.  I couldn't put it down.  I was so eager to find out if some of these famous cases had ever been solved. Some of the families did find closure; most of them didn't. But that doesn't mean these intrepid sleuths will end their search.  

Despite the petty jealousies, despite the fact that some are pushing others away from the 'finish line', it is these people who are determined to place a name with a body.  They help restore dignity to a human being, no matter who they were, no matter what they did to place themselves in such horrid circumstances.  Halber does a great job in portraying their strengths and weaknesses.  She has a knack for digging deep and getting to the heart of each case.

Let's hope that her book will inspire others to do just that.

'The Skeleton Crew', by Deborah Halber, will be published on 

July 1st 2014, by Simon & Schuster.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

'The Intern's Handbook'

After spending the day job hunting online and pestering our local bookstore manager, I decided that it was time to relax.  Grab a book, plop down on the couch, and lose myself in a fabricated world.  Perhaps even take a nap.

Yeah.  Sure.

I had a copy of 'The Intern's Handbook', the first novel written by Shane Kuhn. His story does not induce naps.  Far from it.

It keeps you awake, reading reading reading, eager to find out just what happens. Just how it ends.  And when you think you have it figured out, you're wrong.  At least, I was wrong.

And that's one of the many reasons why I love this book.  Not only was it sarcastic and blunt, it moved.  It flowed.  The characters will surprise you.  "Okay...who is he really?"  "Is this guy a total idiot?"  "Oh.  He's not."

You go back-and-forth, amazed by the information, the precision and planning, and delighted by the snarky narrator. But John Lago is much more than snarky.  He's brilliant.  He's cunning.  He's been taught very well.  And he exacts revenge with a passion I haven't seen in recent novels.

And he's funny.  I laughed my butt off while reading his advice for would-be assassins.

John Lago is a very, very bad man, and the best at what he does.  He infiltrates top-level companies and assassinates misbehaving executives.  John is a chameleon, able to change his appearance, his voice, his name, and his background to suit the situation.  But with one major mistake, he finds his life and comfy soon-to-be retirement in jeopardy.  

Yes, 'The Intern's Handbook' is a thriller.  It's full of suspense.  It's a pure cat-and mouse game.  But it's also hilarious.  And dangerous.  And so very well-written.

You won't put it down.  I promise.  
Author Shane Kuhn

I read it in one day, despite my previous chores.  While I was reading it, I couldn't help but see it as a movie.

A very dangerous, hilarious movie.

'The Intern's Handbook', published by Simon & Schuster, is now available at independent bookstores and your local library.  If you happen to meet the author, tell him Book Hog says, "Bravo!"

Monday, April 21, 2014

'The Collector of Dying Breaths'

Reincarnation is such a fascinating topic, don't you think?  

I've always wondered if I've lived other lives; where, when, who...or what.  And I always find great amusement in hearing some people claim they were Cleopatra, or Billy the Kid, or a queen or king, or Einstein. Usually someone famous.  Never a peasant.  Never a shopkeeper. Never a stable hand. Never a plumber.  But the following incident made my spine tingle: One evening, many years ago, I was visiting family members, and they were playing a ouija board with my cousin's husband.  Although he was very dismissive of all things paranormal, his face turned deathly pale when he 'learned' that he had been a riverboat gambler who had been caught cheating, was shot and his former body currently resided at the bottom of a river. That's not your every day past life. It's one that I could almost believe.  He wasn't clever enough to make up a story like that.  Trust me.

I've always been drawn to stories centered on the paranormal.  And reincarnation seems to make sense to me.  I've always felt that life here is a classroom, and if we get a failing grade, we get the chance for a 'do over'.  

Author M. J. Rose has written a most extraordinary series of books dealing with just that. I have reviewed the past two books in her series; 'The Book of Lost Fragrances' and 'Seduction'; I was totally enthralled by them. Her newest novel, and third in the series, 'The Collector of Dying Breaths', brilliantly brings everything together and ties it all in a fragrant bow.

In 1533, an Italian orphan with an uncanny knack for creating fragrance is plucked from a dangerous situation and becomes Catherine de Medici's perfumer.  René le Florentine is occasionally called into service to not only create personal fragrances for his Queen and her court, but to also create deadly poisons to dispatch her enemies.  He is devoted to the brilliant, intelligent Catherine, but when he loses two special people, he becomes obsessed with the desire to collect dying breaths in order to reanimate those he loved and lost.  Five hundred years later, Jac L'Etoile, who is suffering from a major loss, is involved in a dangerous treasure hunt to find René's secrets. Finally allowing her past life remembrances to come to the surface, she finds her link to René and the reason he pursued immortality.

Griffin North, Jac's former lover, returns to the series, setting off a chain of events that kept me spellbound.

And the romantic 'interludes' are...well, hot.  Rose definitely knows how to write love scenes.

Author M. J. Rose
But it isn't just love scenes at which she excels.  She has a knack for using her research to further the story and inform the reader.  She has an interest in the unknown; she questions the age-old search for immortality and the quest for past lives.  With each one of her books, you'll learn little-known facts about the paranormal, about the making of perfume, and how scent triggers memories.  It's altogether satisfying and enlightening.

Although the series comes together in a most satisfying way, I'll miss them.  I'll miss their passion.

Jac and Griffin danced a marvelous tango down through the scented ages.

'The Collector of Dying Breaths', published by Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster), is now available at your local library and independent bookstores.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

'Flora and Ulysses'

For many of us, life can be tough.  General fiction books are a nice comfort, but there's nothing like diving into a children's story to make us feel all soft and squishy. And happy.

Happy is important.

I love to read children's books; Harry Potter, Black Beauty, Capt. Underpants (yes, Captain Underpants!), the Magic Treehouse series, Artemis Fowl, etc.  The list is endless, and each one brings me a fresh perspective.  No matter how hard life can be, a simple, funny, sweet story full of optimism dislodges the adult-induced stress from my brain.

Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite children's book authors.  I have several of her books in first edition/first printing, and I cherish them. 'The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane' brings me to tears every time I read it.  I was overjoyed to learn that her new book, 'Flora and Ulysses' was finally available at the library!  Seriously.  Overjoyed!

It's quite different from her previous stories.  Not that that's a bad thing, of course.  It's full of love and optimism, superheroes and hope.  It has a squirrel and a little girl who loves him. It has a selfish mother who really, really pissed me off, and a gentle father who needed his daughter more than he thought.  It also has a potential friend, William Spiver, who thinks he's blind, and his great-aunt, Tootie, who is a true marvel.

But it's Flora and Ulysses who are the center of this wonderful story.

Flora is a cynic, living with her author mother (she write romance stories).  Flora's parents are divorced, and she sees her father on a regular basis.  When she looks out her window one day, she sees her neighbor, Tootie, outside, chasing down her gift from her husband:  A huge vacuum cleaner!  A poor little squirrel gets in the way, and is soon sucked into the machine. Flora's quick thinking saves the little guy...and the adventure begins.

Author Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator K.G. Campbell
Told in text and comic book style, 'Flora and Ulysses' is a departure for DiCamillo, but well worth the read. Up-and-coming artist, K. G. Campbell, provides the fantastic, whimsical b/w illustrations.

They have given us the gift of an exciting, heartbreaking (in some spots) story.

But, most of all, it's wonderful.

I hope that DiCamillo and her illustrator, K. G. Campbell, turn this into a series.  I'll be first in line to read it.

Flora and Ulysses' is available at your library and local bookstore.  ISBN 9780763660406.  Give it a read and watch your perspective change for the better!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

'The Perfect Ghost'

I have admired Linda Barnes' 'Carlotta Carlyle' mystery series for quite some time now, so I was a bit intrigued when I learned that she wrote a story that stands on its own.  No Carlotta.  No series.

Just 'The Perfect Ghost'.  And it's near perfection, in my opinion.

It's all 'twisty-and-turny', mysterious and decadent. It's about actors and directors, writers and researchers.  It has a narrator with a unique voice, a woman who finds the courage to get under her subject's skin and discover the truth.

Of course, the truth is startling.  Especially for an agoraphobic person who was too timid to realize (or didn't want to know) the truth in the first place. But that's when the story turns around.  Too bad it happened so close to the end.

Mousy and shy Em Moore is the writing half of a celebrity biography team.  Teddy, her charismatic partner, does the interviewing and 'schmoozing'. Once lovers, their partnership has settled into successful careers.  When Teddy dies in a car accident, Em is devastated and unsure as to how to proceed with her life.  But finding her inner courage, she decides to finish the interviews for their current book.  Her journey takes her to the home of famous film director/actor Garrett Malcolm, where she pursues the interviews...and tries to find out just why the police are investigating Teddy's car accident. As Em becomes more confident, she finds skeletons in Garrett's closet, secrets that Garrett and his associates are desperate to keep hidden.

The story flowed beautifully, and the false assumptions made me want to wrap Em in my arms to keep her safe.  But Barnes is clever; Em didn't need my sympathy.  She finds her bravery and pushes herself to the limit.

And the limit was quite....surprising.

Read 'The Perfect Ghost'.  Stay with it.  

The ending is delicious in its own little way.  Let's hope that this is the beginning of yet another wonderful mystery series.

Author Linda Barnes
'The Perfect Ghost', by Linda Barnes, and published by Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin's Press) is available at your library and independent bookstore.  ISBN 9781250023636


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

'The Winter People'

I've been in the mood to read a good ghost story.  After checking my shelves and not finding what I really hungered for, I was surprised to discover that one of my library holds finally came in.

And it was a ghost story.  Strange, huh?

Although written in a very simple style, 'The Winter People', by Jennifer McMahon, pulled me in and didn't let go.  It is full of spooky atmosphere and wonderful suspense.  

West Hall, Vermont is a place of strange disappearances and old legends.  The most mysterious mystery is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who is found dead in the field behind her house in 1908, just months after the tragic death of her young daughter, Gertie.  Some townspeople say that Sara's ghost walks the streets after midnight, and some of the people leave offerings outside to prevent her from coming inside.

The story begins with an diary entry from that time, and the first sentence had me intrigued. When she was nine years old, Sara Harrison sees a childhood that had died from typhoid fever.  Sara questions Auntie, the family friend and the area's witch woman, about bringing dead people back to life.

But Auntie tells Sara that she will write down the instructions, seal them in an envelope, and when Sara is old enough to understand, she'll find it.

The story then moves forward to tell the story of Ruthie Washburne, a teenager sharing an isolated farmhouse with her younger sister and her mother.  Like any typical teen, Ruthie dreams of escaping the town and defying her mother's insistence that they live off the grid. But the story takes a dark turn when Ruthie comes downstairs one morning and discovers that her mother has disappeared.  And it gets even stranger when she finds Sara's diary hidden under the floorboards in her mother's bedroom.

Jennifer McMahon
At once a mystery, and then a strange ghost story, 'The Winter People' kept me on my toes, and I really didn't want to reach the end. It kept me guessing, kept me in suspense, kept me from putting it down.

But I did.  As I said, I didn't want to reach the end, despite the fact that I would gaze longingly at it while I was working on my own story.

I hope that this talented author's next novel grabs me as quickly.

'The Winter People', published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, can be found in your local library (prepare for a long wait), and your favorite independent bookstore.  ISBN 978-0385-538497