Friday, October 21, 2016

This Was Not the Plan

This Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger
Touchstone: 10/18/16
eBook review copy; 368 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781501103766

This Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger is a recommended novel about discovering what is important in life.

Charlie Goldwyn works long hours trying to make partner at the Manhattan corporate law firm where he works. Charlie is a widow whose 5 year-old son, Caleb, has been watched/raised by his twin sister, Zadie, since the death of his wife, Mira, two years ago. After spending a long 72 hours at work to complete a big case, Charlie just wants to go home, but he has to attend a party for the new associates at the firm. He ends up drinking too much and making a speech that is brutally honest about life at the firm. His drunken speech was being filmed and is put on YouTube, where it goes viral, resulting in Charlie being fired from the firm.

Now that Charlie's free to watch Caleb, Zadie asks to take a little vacation, leaving Charlie totally in charge of his son. What Charlie wants is his job back. Even when Mira was alive, she was the caregiver, not Charlie. Now it's all up to him to become the father his wife wanted him to be, but the one he hasn't been. The forced time off from work will also give him a chance to grieve the loss of his wife. But there are a lot more surprises in store for Charlie as he learns to become the father Caleb deserves.

Even though Charlie loses his job, you know that nothing really bad is going to happen here. Anything really bad has already happened, off the page, and is only discussed now. Charlie is really the only well-developed character while the rest of the characters are more caricatures of a type of person. The narrative alternates between present day actions and Charlie's memories of Mira. The story heads in a predictable, familiar direction, which isn't always bad.

In the final analysis, this is a pleasant, feel-good book. The writing is good. There is some substance to the story even though it's meant to be and written as light escapism. Many reviewers liked this one much more than I did. To be honest, I didn't really like the free spirited character of Mira, which sort of put a damper on my enjoyment.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Stars at Night

Stars at Night by Paula D'Arcy
Franciscan Media: 10/21/16
eBook review copy; 192 pages
ISBN-13: 9781632530424

Stars at Night: When Darkness Unfolds as Light by Paula D'Arcy is a recommended book of meditations and thoughts on loss and transcending the darkness to find light.

Paula D’Arcy was only 27 when a drunk driver killed her husband and young daughter. She survived the accident and so did her unborn child. As D'Arcy was crying out, she discovered "a presence within her that responded to her fearful cries for help. Her anguished heart was met by a great tenderness and wisdom, which she grew to recognize as a transcendent love." This realization helped her find her way out of the darkness into the light.

She feels that we all have dark times, they are a natural part of life, and may need help making our own way through and back to the light. The Stars at Night offers hope.
Paula is a writer, playwright, retreat leader, and conference and seminar speaker. In 2001, she established Red Bird Foundation, which supports the growth and spiritual development of those in need throughout the world, including men and women in prison. The foundation has sponsored two international gatherings of women known as WOMENSPEAK, conferences which honor the woman’s voice as a force of peace and healing for the world.

D'Arcy writes her reflections in a meditative, poetic manner. This didn't quite work for me. I would be reading, appreciating the tone she was setting and then, boom, I was distracted. I kept finding sentences where my attention to the meaning was lost because I was mentally rewriting the sentence so it made more sense or was grammatical correct. This is notable because I am not a writer and have no illusions about that fact. I am, however, a voracious reader who can recognize the quality of the writing.

This was a so-so book for me that I was hoping I would like much more. I went through a dark period where my whole life was changed. This already stressful time was punctuated by overwhelming, profound loss and grief when two close immediate family members died, 1 1/2 months apart. Now, looking back at that time, which hasn't been all that long ago, it was a season of loss where my faith sustained me, held me, and I survived, stronger but changed. While Stars at Night will offer help and hope for people, it was too vague in the sense of where and in whom their hope should lie during those dark times.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Truevine by Beth Macy
Little, Brown and Company: 10/18/16
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316337540

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest by Beth Macy is the very highly recommended true story of two African-American brothers who were stolen and shown as circus freaks. Macy summarizes her book as "It's a story about race, greed, and the circus, and I've been chasing it for more than 25 years."

The story of how 9 year old George, and 6 year old Willie Muse were stolen in 1899 right out of the tobacco field where they were working was handed down through the African-American families who lived in Truevine, Virginia, for generations. George and Willie, who were both albinos, were enslaved by a circus side-show manager and forced to be on display as various caricatures over the years. The Muse brothers became a popular top tier sideshow act. At Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey they were known as "Eko and Iko, the Ecuadorian Savages. During various other shows they were billed as cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even "Ambassadors from Mars."

Their mother may have initially made an agreement for the boys to work at the sideshow, but did not plan to have her boys enslaved by a shifty promoter and never returned home. She spent 28 years trying to get them back and securing pay for their work, which had been uncompensated.

The historical scope of Macy's book is rich in period details and facts. Macy divides her book into four parts. She focuses on the world the boys were born into, the Jim Crow South, and looks at the life in the circus, including  the side show acts/performers and managers, while uncovering the scarce details she could find about the life of the Muse brothers in the circus. Macy clearly admires Harriet Muse, the boy's mother, and her determination to find and secure some kind of compensation for their work. She managed to use the legal system to her advantage during a time when that scarcely seems possible.

Truevine is an extremely well researched, thoughtfully written, historical account that is just as gripping as a thriller. Macy, a reporter, spent years waiting for the Muse family to approve her covering this story. Then she spent more time researching the story of the Muse brothers and the pertinent background information. and the historical context of the times. Her account of the facts and presentation of the historical information is simple fascinating and results in a compelling narrative that is a credit to her skills at research, reporting the facts, and presenting the information in a factual yet compassionate way. 

As is my wont, I was thrilled to see that Truevine includes extensive notes for each chapter and an index.  This is one non-fiction book that should not be missed.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Beautiful Maids All in a Row

Beautiful Maids All in a Row by Jennifer Harlow
Random House Group: 10/11/16
eBook review copy; 325 pages
ISBN-13: 9780425285855
Iris Ballard series #1

Beautiful Maids All in a Row by Jennifer Harlow is a highly recommended thriller.

Dr. Iris Ballard is just trying to survive day to day now. Two years ago she was working as a profiler for the FBI when she and her husband were attacked in their home by a serial killer she has helped track down. Her husband was killed. Iris survived being cut open but lives daily with flashbacks, phantom pain from her wounds, and guilt. She left the FBI and is teaching at a small college, drinking and mixing it with pills to forget. She rarely gets a full night of sleep from the nightmares.

Iris happens to see her former partner, Luke Hudson, on TV, as part of the investigation to find the serial killer dubbed "The Woodsmen." She also realizes that she knew his latest victim. When Luke shows up at her door asking for help in constructing a psychological profile of the killer, she's not interested, until she sees the case file and reluctantly agrees to help. Iris is up against an intelligent killer who thrives on control and not making mistakes. Can Iris help Luke and the FBI or has she really met her match?

Beautiful Maids All in a Row is a page-turner. The writing is good. The plot moves along with only a few stalls along the way. The serial killer is ruthless and takes pleasure in being cruel and torturing his victims. The descriptions of his actions are vivid and brutal.  Iris is depicted as a real person; she is flawed, damaged, and struggling with her own anger issues and mental health. Luke is less well developed as a character, but Harlow does set up a backstory for the two. This looks like an intriguing start of a new series. Based on this first book, I would certainly pick up the next book featuring Iris Ballard. Yeah, she's damaged physically and emotionally, but she is also tough and determined.

There are several flaws in this novel, but, after I learned that Harlow was 19 when she wrote this years ago, I am choosing to overlook them - even though she has written several books since and could have, perhaps edited some of the questionable material out or added material to keep it realistic in the novel. Specifically I'm questioning the opening addictive behavior of Iris and the abrupt cessation of her addictive pattern. A patch is mentioned for the smoking (not as easy as all that) but what about the drugs and alcohol? The something in the mouth scene was too close to Silence of the Lambs for me. But, moving beyond any qualms, I think Iris has a lot of potential for more investigations.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
47North: 10/11/16
eBook review copy; 300 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503939110

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is a very highly recommended plague/post-apocalyptic novel that held my rapt attention from start to finish.

Society has fallen apart. A disease, a plague of Biblical proportions, has stricken the world. It’s likely autoimmune, but nothing seems to stop it: "No antibiotic. No interferon. No anti-inflammatory, no sedative, no emetic, nothing. Nothing touches this once it starts." This has resulted in the death of 98% of the world's men, but it has been even more devastatingly fatal to women and children. It seemingly targets women and children. Childbirth is deadly for both mother and baby, but always for the baby.

An unnamed woman, a labor and delivery nurse in San Francisco who toiled in vain to try to save women and babies during the height of the plague before she became ill, wakes up in the hospital, alive, with no survivors around her. She knows who she is, where she is, and that she has survived the illness, but has no idea how long she was sick or what day it is. She makes it home, realizing that the world has changed since her illness. The first person she encounters is a man who breaks into her apartment that first night and tries to brutally rape her.

"When the sirens quit, the rules gave out. Some people had been waiting their whole lives to live lawlessly, and they were the first to take to the streets. Some people knew that would happen; they knew better than to open their doors when they heard cries of help. Others didn’t. What disease cannot do, people accomplish with astonishing ease."

Our heroine quickly learns that being a woman is a dangerous proposition in this new world where women are very rare and are captured to become sex slaves for gangs of men. Even men who might be allies don't want a woman with them because it makes them targets for the gangs who aren't as civilized. She makes the life-saving decision to shave her head, wear a chest binder, and dress like a man. When she meets anyone, she gives them a false name. We never learn her real name, which she guards closely, a secret piece of her that she keeps to herself.

She finds a gun and arms herself, which wasn't easy in California. Because of her experiences as a nurse, she collects medical supplies, especially birth control because if she meets any women this can save their lives. As she makes her way north and then east, she sees women chained as slaves, used as a commodity (sex) for trading goods, and brutally used and abused by their captors. She has to kill men trying to capture her. Long portions of her time are spent alone, although she saved and travel with another woman for a while. She meets some survivors. Most importantly is that she manages to stay alive in this new world.

The novel is partly written as journal entries, and as such the language is very informal, just as it would be if you were writing something for yourself. In the opening we know that young scribes in the future are being charged with making a copy of this journal, so it is startling to see the stark difference between the formal language in the opening followed by the language of the journal entries. 

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a gritty, harsh, raw story. Elison tells it like it would very likely be in this scenario. Nothing is sugar coated. There are no safe places for a woman. If you have ever felt that society tends toward the misogynistic now, then this is what happens when there are no filters or restraints. I was hooked from the beginning mention of the plague and read it straight through. Sure I lost some sleep but this is one post-apocalyptic tale that is worthy of the time. It is realistic, thought provoking, brutal. After reading it, I have been thinking about it, pondering parts of it, for days, and that, my friends, says it all. Deservedly, it won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award Winner for Distinguished Science Fiction.

There is a part two, The Book of Etta, due to be released in February 2017.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Small Great Things

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Random House Group: 10/11/16
eBook review copy; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345544957

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is a very highly recommended novel that targets race and prejudice.

For over twenty years Ruth Jefferson has been a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital. During the beginning of her shift she is assigned to the room where the mother has just had the baby. Ruth enters the room and begins the routine checkup on the newborn when the father demands to speak to her supervisor. The parents, the Bauer's, who have the newborn are avowed white supremacists and do not want a black person in their room. Ruth is taken off the case and a post-it note is left in their file saying that no African-American is to touch their child. Ruth is the only nurse on staff that this note would apply to, but she complies and moves on with her day.

The next day every other nurse on staff is assisting with an emergency c-section and Ruth is left alone in the nursery. When the Bauer's baby goes into cardiac distress, Ruth must decide if she should follow her training and natural instinct to try and save the baby or if she should follow the orders to not touch this child. When the charge nurse enters and orders Ruth to assist her in trying to save the baby's life, Ruth follows orders, doing compressions for CPR as a whole team rushes in to help. Unknowingly, the parents also rush into the room. After the child dies they claim Ruth was purposefully beating on the chest of their baby trying to kill him. Murder charges end up being filed and Ruth is arrested.

The narrative is told through three different viewpoints: Ruth; Turk Bauer, the white supremacist; and Kennedy McQuarrie, the white public defender. Despite Ruth's objections, Kennedy advises Ruth that they need to keep race out of her trial because it is not a winning strategy. The novel was inspired by a real event in which a white supremacist father refused to allow an experienced African-American labor and delivery nurse to touch his newborn.

In my opinion, the novel could have been stronger if told through Kennedy's viewpoint, one that would basically be Picoult's, and reflect her enlightenment to racial profiling and white privilege as the case unfolded. It would have allowed a more natural realization of how white privilege is a part of her world every day. The ending is a wee bit too pat and positive, with issues nicely settled, to be a reflection of the real world, but it is nice to have a solid ending.

I was annoyed by one small part, when Ruth, who has taken a fast food job, doesn't want Kennedy to think of her as someone who would work at that job if she had any other choice. Um, lots of people have service jobs and not all of them are teenagers. Lots of people have taken jobs for which they are over qualified. Sometimes life happens no matter what your racial background. There is no shame in working. I wouldn't have my current management position if I hadn't taken a part time retail position for a little extra income.

In the end, it has to be noted that Picoult is an incredible, exceptional writer. She takes her gift for capturing characters and always tackles a controversial issue in her novels. Book groups should love Small Great Things and the discussions it will spark. While she may have had a few missteps with this one for me, I'm giving her full points for the discussion, and all the discussions it should inspire (including mine above.)  Additionally, Picoult held my attention from the beginning to the end in this page turner. 4.5, rounding up to 5.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Monday, October 10, 2016


Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Penguin Random House: 10/11/16
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780804141291

As part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, William Shakespeare's The Tempest is retold in Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. It is very highly recommended.

Felix Phillips was the acclaimed and creative Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival until he was forced out of his position by his scheming and conniving second-in-command, Tony Price. After his ignoble exit, he goes into a self-imposed exile, living in a remote shack. After twelve years pass, Felix applies under the name of Mr. Duke for the position of a teacher in the Literacy Through Literature program at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. His one requirement is that he be allowed to use Shakespeare's plays to teach and that he be allowed to have his students/inmates put on the play. His class becomes wildly popular and highly successful in increasing literacy among the participants.

When he learns that his nemesis Tony and the other bigwigs that ousted him from the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival will be visiting the Fletcher County Correctional Institute with the intent of ending the Literacy Through Literature program, Felix has another end game in mind. They don't know he is the one teaching the program as they only know him as Mr. Duke. This is Felix's chance to put on a performance of The Tempest, the play he was planning to direct before Tony had him removed from his position.

The narrative is a parallel to the play as Atwood uses her characters to retell The Tempest while also having the inmates perform their version of the play. The results are simply amazing. The vengeance, magic, spirits, etc. are all there, but the prisoners are allowed to rewrite sections to make their performance based on a more contemporary version. This Tempest has the re-writing of the play featuring rapping  - and Ariel is no ethereal fairy. The inmates are also only allowed to swear using Shakespearean swear words found in the original.

I am delighted with this fourth addition to the Hogarth series. Atwood's narrative is wonderfully inventive and compelling. Don't expect boring or tell yourself that you aren't interested in a re-imagining of Shakespeare. This is a thoroughly modern take on the plot and a man seeking revenge. A synopsis of Shakespeare's original plot in The Tempest is found at the conclusion of Hag-Seed for those who are interested or need some refreshing of their memory. 

Atwood is, as always, brilliant. I am a dedicated fan of her writing anyway, but Hag-Seed is clever, humorous, and a marvelously complete, original retelling of the play. The Hogarth series has featured Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time (The Winter's Tale), Howard Jacobson's Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), and  Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed (The Tempest). I highly recommended Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl, but for me, Atwood's
Hag-Seed was a more successful adaptation. I am anxious to read the first two books in the Hogarth series and I'm planning to read each new adaptation as soon as possible.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.