Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are two skills I admire most in the authors I read: the ability to write thoughtful, beautiful prose and the ability to write a page turner. The odd thing is these skills work against each other. Beautiful prose slows or even stops readers, while well crafted, functional prose, along with a unique, fascinating combination of plot and characters pushes readers forward, demanding their attention even when they're exhausted and worried about getting up for work the next day.

Anthony Marra's skill with language is evident on every page in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Here's an example:

...the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.

As with all Marra's quotes, this is my favorite until I read the next one.

The plot covers the brutality of the Second Chechen War, with some reflection on the First Chechen War. I know surprisingly little about wars in which the USA wasn't a participant, so the subject matter was riveting. And the complex characters care about each other in a desperate manner that seems to fit a war zone. There is plenty of sacrifice mixed with fear and hatred, enough to produce a number of excellent, interrelated, emotional subplots.

It's not a page turner, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

FaithfulFaithful by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I'm looking for something interesting to read and I'm not in the mood to experiment, I often turn to Alice Hoffman, one of my favorite writers. She's written over thirty books and the ones I've read have all been good (The River King, The Red Garden, The Third Angel, and, The Dovekeepers). Faithful is another example of well developed characters set in an interesting plot.

Shelby Richmond and her best friend, Helene, are in a car accident just before they are to graduate from high school. The weather was bad, with icy roads they should have avoided, but Helene insisted and Shelby, who was driving, gave in. After the accident, Helene was left comatose and Shelby is wracked with guilt.

“People say if you face your worst fear, the rest is easy, but those are people who are afraid of rattlesnakes or enclosed spaces, not of themselves and the horrible things they've done.”

The story is about Shelby's path after that life changing event, but more than that, it is about her relationships with the people who help her along the way.

My favorite character is Ben Mink, a classmate of Shelby's who suffers with the more common insecurities of teenagers. While in school, he felt like a dork, but was enamored of both Shelby and Helene. After the accident, he became Shelby's friend/drug dealer, with an emphasis on the first of those two roles. It is fascinating to watch him grow over time and to see how he helps Shelby deal with her issues.

I had an issue with the way Hoffman chose to end the book. Without discussing specifics, I will say she seemed determined to avoid making the novel ending too pat. Although there was something going on throughout the story that pointed toward the ending Hoffman chose, it wasn't fully developed and felt as if it had come out of nowhere (deus ex machina). But this was minor, considering the overall beauty of the book.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

The Shadow QueenThe Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Shadow Queen starts out as a tale of seventeenth century French theater, with a plot that follows the life of Claudette des Oeillets, a child of actors. Claudette's family is suffering through hard times and is forced to live in a campsite they've set up near a cave. They finally get a break, an opportunity to perform for Gabriel de Rochechouart de Mortemart, the Duke of Mortemart. Because Claudette's mother once had a minor role in a production of Le Cid by Corneille, they are to perform that work. They have, however, a very limited cast, just Claudette and her parents. The performance naturally has its issues, but it is here that Claudette meets Athénaïs de Montespan, the novel's title character and here that the novel really gets going.

This is a story of both the seventeenth century French court and of seventeenth century French Theater. There are famous characters like Corneille, Moliere, Racine, Louis the XIV (The Sun King), and, of course, The Shadow Queen - Athénaïs de Montespan. Claudette is also a real, historic figure. The strength of this novel is the depth of character Sandra Gulland shows in Claudette. The book is from her point of view, so everything we know about everyone else is filtered through Claudette's perspective. Gulland has chosen to make her a sympathetic character, which may or may not be true, but works great in the book.

This is a fun read, although it starts a little slow. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys French history.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul



View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Flight of DreamsFlight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ariel Lawhon has clearly done her research in Flight of Dreams. The detailed descriptions of the Hindenburg are fascinating, especially of the areas that present risk.

Schulze leads them to the opposite door, also glass, and into the smoking lounge. If the rest of the ship is luxurious, this room is opulent. Priorities, Gertrud thinks, the Zeppelin-Reederei knows whom to indulge. Leather benches and armchairs line the perfectly square room, leaving the center open. Hand-painted murals of early hot-air balloons decorate the walls. Small square tables are set with playing cards and poker chips. Carpet, such a dark blue that it looks like spilled ink, covers the floor.

The focus in the preceding paragraph is about pampering the rich, but the smoking area is carefully insulated and ventilated - for safety. When one of the crew lights a cigarette in a different area, Emilie (A stewardess who is one of the main characters) reacts:

“It's a bad idea, don't you think?” Emilie asks, as she stands inside the kitchen door, propping it open with her foot. “Striking a match in here? You could blow us all to oblivion.”

Later, Emilie is scolded for allowing children to play with a toy car with grinding gears that can create problems:

“Sparks! How could you let them play with something that sparks? Have you forgotten where we are?”

It's clear that the authorities recognized the dangers inherent with the Hindenburg and have decided to deal with them by establishing rules, rather than rethinking the concept.

Lawhon chose to write about “the real people on board,” people who didn't have much in common with each other. Perhaps this is the reason I thought the characters' personal stories were less interesting than the details of the airship. I never found the subplots about romance, competition, or desire for advancement to be believable. There was, however, one great exception. The Hindenburg was owned by the Nazi government in Germany, a fact that was made clear by the swastikas painted on the tail. A few of the passengers were not happy with the Nazis and were reacting in their own way to their displeasure. I liked the subtlety and the variety of their shared vexation.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul



View all my reviews

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

The DollhouseThe Dollhouse by Fiona  Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fiona Davis has written an interesting novel about the life of Darby McLaughlin, a young, single woman who, in 1952, moved to New York City to attend Katherine Gibbs, a secretarial school. She has a reservation at the Barbizon hotel for Women and plans to stay there while she studies. When she arrives, she learns that the floor where the secretarial students stay is full, so she's been placed on a floor with women who are studying to become models. This is her first bit of bad luck, because most of the models look down on Darby, whom they consider plain and awkward. One of them even puts Darby in a dangerous situation. When Darby finally befriends someone, it is Esme, a maid in the building who treats her well, but has a reputation for acting wild.

The book bounces between Darby's story in the fifties and the story of Rose in 2016. Rose is an investigative reporter whose career and personal life have both taken downturns. Her boyfriend decides to go back to his wife and children, leaving Rose alone and without a place to stay. Meanwhile, she's lost her job as a television newscaster and is working for an internet news startup. Her salary is lower and she doesn't have as much exposure, but she has some freedom to explore the stories she finds exciting. This leads to her interest in some elderly women who have been living at the Barbizon for many years, since before it was converted into condominiums. Rose sees a story in the lives of these women, specifically in the life of one who always wears a veil to cover a facial scar.

I love the structure of the novel, with the present day story involving an investigation into the story set in the fifties. (I use a similar technique in my own novels.) I found the Rose plot less interesting than Darby's, but liked the way Rose discovered aspects of Darby's story through her investigation. The history of the 1952 setting rang true, especially the romance and often seedy nature of the jazz clubs and also the women whose limited opportunities left them with a belief that finding the right man was their only path to a successful life.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K Dick

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read a number of comments about the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, most of them very favorable. So I decided to read the book the show is based on. The novel, of the same name, was written by Phillip K. Dick and published in 1962. The “what if” question behind the story has to do with what life would be like if World War II had been won by the Axis powers. The USA is now split in three: The eastern section controlled by Germany, the Western section controlled by Japan, and a neutral zone in the middle. Life is full of propaganda, assassins, and racial / religious bigotry, resulting in slavery for some and imprisonment or death for others. Life goes on, but with different rules. Some people hide their identities so they can work. Those lucky enough to belong to the approved groups still have to demean themselves when dealing with the conquerors.

PKD's ideas are fascinating and more focused on believable scenarios than a lot of the “B” movies, the ones that feature jack-booted thugs marching all over America. My one, big complaint concerns the plot. The book includes a number of stories about people with interconnected lives. All the stories start out in interesting ways, but stop without conclusions or fully connecting. Maybe that's why the Amazon executives decided to base a series on this novel. However, I feel the book would have worked better if it had been longer.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Thursday, February 9, 2017

After You by Jojo Moyes

After You (Me Before You, #2)After You by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After You often refers back to Me Before You. The novel stands on its own with most of the plot lines, but I would advise readers to read the books in their intended order. You should, however, read them both. I love Jojo Moyes' writing, especially the way she handles her main character, Louisa Clark.

Louisa is an insecure young woman who has been though a very depressing experience, leaving her without a person she loved. She has moved out of her small English town and is now living in an inexpensive London flat, working as a waitress in an airport bar/restaurant. She's unhappy at her work and lonely when she's away from it.

The story starts with an accident, in the same manner as Me Before You. When I read the beginning, I worried that this book would be a rewrite of the first novel, from a different point of view. But the story took a different turn and I was glad I didn't give up on it.

The connection to the previous book comes through a character introduced later in the story. It's a good choice because it presents Louisa with a challenging situation she needs to grow into, while keeping much of her focus on the past rather than the future.

The plot is a bit disjointed, but comes together in the end. I also had trouble with one of the subplots, because it seemed unrealistic (that's the most I can say without including a spoiler). Yet overall the story works. It presents choices and challenges for Louisa that show her growing and changing.

After you is a good sequel and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Me Before You.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Monday, January 30, 2017

Ursa Rising by Sheila Englehart

Ursa RisingUrsa Rising by Sheila Englehart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Ursa Rising begins, the ex members of the once popular band, Ursa, are in BAD shape. Their problems include cancer, a paralyzed spouse, a jail term for statutory rape, an extreme case of guilt, and a rhythm guitarist who has been dead for ten year. Their drummer, who is still trying to make it in the music business, faces problems getting work because there is a widespread belief in an “Ursa curse.”

Then Vanessa, the daughter of the rhythm guitarist, comes back into their lives, intent on filming a documentary about her father by exploring the lives of the others in his band. She's nineteen now. They haven't seen her since she was nine. Benny, the keyboardist/lead singer welcomes her into his home and, by doing so, into all their lives. Vanessa's style is to film as much as she can, mixing interviews with candid moments. She often leaves her camera rolling while she and the men go about their daily routine. The novel takes off from that spot with twists and turns that would be spoilers if I chose to write about them.

Sheila Englehart's writing shows a solid knowledge of both film making and the business of rock music, in particular the backstage side of performing. The negatives of life on the road are exposed as well as the beauty of having a goal worth the sacrifices. A healer named Eden shows up a little ways into the novel. Her life is an interesting comparison to the life Benny led while Ursa was big and to his current life as well. There's an underlying question in their stories, of what success is. Is it recognition or quality?

I also love the way many of Englehart's characters speak, as if maintaining their image is as important as communication. Here's a sample:

Slowly the coughing calmed, and he could breathe again. All was quiet for a couple of minutes before Chris blurted, “We gotta get Lucy.”
“Who's Lucy?” Vanessa asked.
“Love of my life. I had her at the audition. They wouldn't let me take her in the ambulance.” He coughed some more. “I gotta find out if she's still there or if one of the guys took her home.”
“Guitar,” Benny said to Vanessa. “We need to get him something for that cough.”


Ursa Rising is a fun read that's hard to put down. It offers a chance to go backstage with some fascinating people.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Vegetarian: A Novel by Han Kang is a powerful book, one that is difficult to put down. I read it based on a Goodreads recommendation, without knowing much about the story. At first, I thought it was about the life of a woman in a conservative society. After that, I thought it was about a victim of mental illness. Then, I thought it was about the reactions of the people around a person suffering from mental illness. In the end I came to the conclusion it is about all those things and more. There are some graphic descriptions of sexual acts that are appropriate for the novel, but very disturbing.

The book is divided in three parts. Although some sections are written from the point of view of the main character, Yeong-hye, for the most part these sections are from the perspective of Yeong-hye's husband, Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, and Yeong-hye's sister. Yeong-hye is the perfect wife, which means she complete's her tasks well and lives a passive life. Her only act of rebellion is found in her resistance to wearing a bra. Then she has a dream, a surreal dream she interprets as a call to become a vegetarian. In American society this doesn't seem like a radical decision, but apparently it is in Korean society. Also, Yeong-hye does not replace the food she's determined to avoid with vegetables that provide necessary nutrition. She becomes emaciated, causing some bizarre and outrageous reactions from the people around her.

The Vegetarian was written in Korean. The language is concise and compelling. Since I read the English version, it's hard to know how much of the text is Han Kang's work and how much is due to Deborah Smith's translation, but the final result is impressive. Here's a selection:

Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs, #1)Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you're looking for a mystery with great suspense, or for a lead character who has flaws she needs to overcome, Maisie Dobbs probably isn't the book for you. But if you are looking for an interesting, romantic, story set during World War I and in the years following, you'll like this one.

Maisie is an extremely beautiful woman with superior intellect, compassion, and intuition. She does show one human failing toward the end of the novel, but most of the book's interesting character flaws are found in the people around Maisie, not in her. And even the minor characters seem to come around to the right way of thinking or have a good excuse for not doing so. There's a social climber who works for the war effort in a dangerous situation and a party girl who volunteers for the service. I won't mention others, to avoid including too many spoilers.

The story starts out with a typical mystery, a man believes his wife is having an affair and hires Maisie Dobbs to check on her. But the book takes a long detour back to the war years, where we get to learn about Maisie's time as a battlefield nurse. There's a wartime romance as well as an interesting friend, who serves as an ambulance driver.

The book also deals with the separation of classes that existed in England. Maisie plays a role in Winspear's portrayal of that era's social discrimination, giving the reader something to think about.

I listened to the audio and enjoyed it. The narrator, Rita Barrington, did a wonderful job and Jacqueline Winspear writes with a clear, interesting style that isn't overdone. It doesn't gets in the way of the story, yet she uses colorful language appropriate for the period.

Steve Lindahl - author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #1)Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children I'd heard it was the next Harry Potter. I suppose that's a valid claim, since they are both YA novels with odd schools requiring something akin to magic just to get there. I haven't seen the Peregrine film yet, but plan to soon. The Rotten Tomatoes ratings are above average, but not as high as the first Harry Potter film. It will be interesting to see how far this idea can go.

I enjoyed this novel, especially Jacob's relationships, first with his grandfather then with Emma, one of the students at the Peregrine school. Jacob starts out as a lonely sixteen year old who has trouble fitting in. He only has one good friend and is working at a job he hates because it is his family's business. He loves his grandfather, but long since lost his belief in the wild stories the old man tells. Then a tragic incident causes Jacob to be on the other side of unbelievable stories.

His story is so strange he doesn't believe it himself. On the advice of a therapist he's been seeing, Jacob goes on a trip with his father to a remote island that was central to his grandfather's tales. Here's where he meets Emma and the rest of the peculiar children. Jacob's relationship with Emma also feels real, with the appropriate awkwardness for two teenagers who like each other, but have their own backgrounds and agendas.

The plot includes time manipulation, which is, in this case, a complicated form of time travel. Every time travel book I've ever read has some conflicts and this one is no exception. Overall it's a fun read, with a well written plot. I recommend it to anyone who likes YA novels.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul


View all my reviews