Sunday, July 26, 2015

Valley Fever


A broken romantic relationship propels a disillusioned young woman back to her hometown of Fresno, Calif., in Katherine Taylor's vivid, enjoyable second novel, Valley Fever. This story of family, friendship, loyalty and betrayal is narrated by sharp-witted, 30-something Ingrid Palamede, who settles into the colorful backdrop of the Central Valley and her family's faltering 20,000-acre riverside vineyard--Palamede Farms. The vineyard has a storied history: Ingrid's father, Ned, inherited his first hundred acres and, over the years, kept buying and cultivating more land. But the farm is now in financial trouble, Ned is ill and Ingrid's mother is contemptuous. With plenty of free time now, Ingrid offers to help. Is she the savior the farm needs?

As she becomes embroiled in the small-town landscape that shaped her, Ingrid revisits her past, brushing up against an old flame, an estranged best friend and an employee suspected of stealing from the farm. Ingrid's sister, Anne--a successful voice-over actress in Los Angeles who would do anything for her--is leery about Ingrid's plight. And then there's "Uncle" Felix, Ned's oldest and dearest friend, another vintner, who makes his living by purchasing grapes from other farmers--including the Palamedes. With Ingrid in charge, will Felix hold up his end of the bargain, or will sour grapes and self-interest trump professional bonds?

Taylor (Rules for Saying Goodbye) delivers a vivid, bittersweet, entertaining drama that harvests ripe truths about self-discovery, the workings of the heart and the tangled vines of families and fortunes.


Valley Fever: A Novel by Katherine Taylor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26 Hardcover, 9780374299149, 304 pp   
Publication Date: June 9, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (6/30/15), click HERE

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Commentary: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee



TO KILL A WATCHMAN?



The buzz has been building for Go Set a Watchman. This long-awaited first novel was written 50 years ago by Harper Lee before she re-tooled it as To Kill a Mockingbird. I've always been a fan of Mockingbird and Lee (see my Op-Ed in The Record,  7/6/10). And while, as a writer, I am very intrigued by the whole premise of reading the vision of a work before it was edited, early reviews of the novel are making me very leery. And I would bet there have been more articles and criticism already written about—and in anticipation of—Watchman than the 288 pages of the novel itself!



Reviews of Watchman have been disillusioned and unsettling. Most notably (and shockingly) is the character of lawyer and father, Atticus Finch. In Mockingbird, he was a paragon of virtue. In Watchman, reviewers are saying he is a racist bigot—who even attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting.  Watchman is set 20 years later than Mockingbird and builds on the premise of now 20-year-old Scout and her return visit to Maycomb, Ala. from where she now lives in New York City. Upon arriving back in her hometown, Scout is shocked to find that her father holds "abhorrent views on race and segregation," according to Michiko Kakutani  of The New York Times.



How did this happen?



If this review and others are accurate in their assessments, then the very idea of Watchman is confusing and troubling. Was Mockingbird scrubbed of Atticus's racist tendencies in order to make him and the story more commercially viable—to appeal to the masses, a wide swatch of African-Americans and Caucasians? If so, was this choice an artistically aesthetic choice or simply a means to drive up book sales? What might be the reason why Lee would recast Atticus so significantly from a racist "sinner" in Watchman into a morally upright and virtuous "saint" in Mockingbird ?  Yes, the novel is fiction, as is the character of Atticus Finch (although he is said to be closely based on Lee's own father). But for a writer, this would be like rewriting the character of Mother Theresa into an abusive harridan the likes of Joan Crawford!



Mockingbird has sold well over 50 million copies. What author wouldn't want their work read and enjoyed, debated and celebrated by the masses? It remains required reading in schools throughout the USA and beyond. And yes, Lee has made millions and even won a Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird



But did Lee pay a price—in her soul—to craft the Mockingbird narrative away from her original vision as found in Watchman?


Mockingbird is and will more than likely remain a classic novel. But might Lee have felt, deep down, that she "sold out" her vision by acquiescing to editorial demands--overhauling the Atticus of Watchman in order to make the good and evil aspects of Mockingbird more black-and-white (pardon the pun) and more marketable? Could it be that she felt it was best to let the worldly success and glory of Mockingbird remain as is and never allow her work (or even herself) to be doctored for mass appeal ever again? Might her 50-years of public silence be more understandable when viewed in this context?



Which leads to my next question: if early reviews of Watchman are discerningly on-target, then did Lee really sanction its publication? Could suspicions of Lee's lack of cognizance be accurate? Why would she strip off the idyllic finish of Atticus as portrayed in Mockingbird and tarnish his persona by finally exposing his "dark side" in Watchman? And why now? Was Lee manipulated into publishing Watchman just as she was manipulated to rewrite the essence of Watchman and transform it into the more idealistic version of Mockingbird?  



On the flip side remains the possibility that Lee is completely aware of her intentions—that she is fully mindful and astute. Whether she "sold out" her story or not for Mockingbird, perhaps before her life ends, she wants, for her own peace of mind, for others to experience her original vision, the way she first envisioned the novel?  After all, considering the strides made for equality over the past 50 years, the racial divide is still miles apart and a hot-button issue—especially with the police-civilian riots in St. Louis and Baltimore and the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre. Perhaps Lee has been closely watching current world events unfold and believes Watchman—with its darker, less politically correct themes—may prove even more relevant today than if the book was released 50 years before?



Calculated decision or coercion, we'll likely never know the author's true intent or the real story behind the reasons for publication of Watchman. And maybe "not knowing" will, in the end, serve to further ratchet up book sales, intensify conversations and debates about the continued racial unrest in our country and ultimately make Watchman even more appealing and well-read than Mockingbird.




"To Kill A Watchman?" (commentary) © 2015 by Kathleen Gerard 
Note: Do not reprint, reproduce, post online or copy without proper attribution 




Harper, $27.99 Hardcover, 9780062409850, 288 pp

Publication Date: July 14, 2015

To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE



To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (50th Anniversary Edition)

Harper Torch, $25.00 Hardcover, 9780061743528, 323 pp

Publication Date: May 11, 2010

To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE



Monday, July 6, 2015

Nina George: The Power of Books to Heal

The Writer's Life
Nina George writes contemporary novels centered on people "who undertake a physical journey that leads to self-discovery" because, she admits, she does the very same thing in her own life. "The quests, the odysseys, the 'joyful wanderings' (exploration, seeking the way, straying from the beaten path) are what constitutes a life." While she is of German descent, France is "in her blood" due to influences from her mother's side of the family. She believes "the French soul lay closer to (her) heart than German sensibilities." George lives in the Finistére region of Brittany, "at the end of the world.... Although," she claims, "some say it is where the world begins." The Little Paris Bookshop (read the review below or link HEREwas first published in German as "Das Lavendelzimmer" in 2013; it has sold over 500,000 copies and been translated into more than 27 languages. Crown will publish the novel in the U.S. in June. (Interview translated by Heidi Holzer.)
The Little Paris Bookshop largely takes place on French waterways. Have you ever taken a river cruise through France?
My father died the same year I'd planned to take the tour, and I also had a titanium implant in my neck. So I talked to "river people" and borrowed their river diaries. I spoke with tourists and locals. In 2014 (after the book had been on the bestseller list for a year), my husband, Jo, and I finally drove along the route. We ate and drank in Montargis and Cepoy, checked out houseboats for sale and drove across the canal bridge in Briare.
Sanary-sur-mer becomes the cornerstone of the novel. Is there any special reason why you chose to make this locale central to the plot of the story?
Oh, yes! In 2012, I explored Provence and drove around the region, 1,500 kilometers [930 miles], until the land answered my questions. I went to Sanary-sur-mer because it was the home of German women writers in exile. In a way, I felt as though I were in exile as well. My father had died, my body--my neck--was injured. It felt as though I'd lost my way: my life, my sense of inner childhood, my security. Sanary was a place of healing for me. I believe that everyone has a secret place where they are made "whole" again, no matter what it was that broke them in the first place.
Would you say a sense of brokenness inspired the novel?
Life. Death. Books. Dreams.... It began with the success of Die Mondspielerin/The Moon Musician, after which people expected me to write another novel. I wanted to explore the great themes of guilt, heartbreak and beginning one's "'actual" life all over again. My father died in 2011, and that was the caesura in my life, in everything that I am. I've been writing for 23 years. I'm a professional writer. Yet after my father's much too sudden death, I felt something break inside--my deep grief brought me back to myself. And it also redefined what I want to and am able to write about.
So I wrote about life, about survival after the death of a loved one, about the power of books that can heal everything--absolutely everything. And about living in one's own dreams. I felt free to do whatever I wanted, because I'd already gone through the worst possible thing in life. Since then, rules have no longer applied to me. For survivors, nothing is forbidden.
You pay your father a beautiful tribute in the dedication to this novel.
My father was a loving man. I never met any human being like him. He was kind and strong. He didn't have a great deal of education--no one did in postwar Germany--and yet he was wise and read up on everything. We'd been discussing my work since the early days of my career--I landed my first job, with a newspaper, at the age of 19. By 22, I'd written the first of what are now 26 books--and he read everything I wrote. We debated, he offered praise. He always wanted to know how I came up with things. No one else has ever been so intensely interested in what I think. He never wanted me to be simply "pretty" or "a good girl." His desire was for me to think, to develop internal endurance. He encouraged me in sports, challenged me to think. He helped develop my political sensibility and demanded that I respect people, cultures and religions. I was never to assume that my truth is the only one that matters. In a sense, the way he brought me up laid the groundwork for how I'm able to see the world.
Why has this novel resonated so deeply with readers?
Because it's a story about death and about how much we can be shaped by loss, by missing a person. Grieving, or admitting that the loss of a loved one has derailed us, was unfashionable, forbidden for much of the past. Also, there is a dedicated community of people in the world who will always be able to connect with each other across all languages, boundaries and religions. It is the "Readers' Club." People who read a lot, starting at a very young age, are people who were raised by books. They have learned about forms of love and hate, kindness, respect and ideas that are different from their own. They experience the world as something infinitely larger than before. They enjoy the indescribable feeling of having found their true selves.
We readers are book people, and Jean Perdu [the protagonist] is one of us. We are all traveling on an invisible literary riverboat, one that carries us down the stream of life. It shapes, holds and comforts us.
At the end of the novel, you include a compendium of books/titles to cure whatever ails a reader. If you were to include The Little Paris Bookshop on that list, what ailment would this novel serve to cure/alleviate?
Catharsis and healing. Das Lavendelzimmer/The Little Paris Bookshop is both a kind of cleansing and a literary form of solace. It penetrates areas of the soul where old and grand emotions are hidden. Grief, melancholy, regret that we are not 16 anymore, compassion, the desire to be loved by our parents, finding the place where we feel whole, understanding the fears in our dreams. The book cleanses these wounds--and above all, it provides solace. In Germany, people often give books to friends who are starting over: a new life, a new job, a new era.
Jean Perdu has a favorite book that changed his life. Do you have a book that changed yours?
My library holds 3,500 books, and I've read around 4,200 in my life. Every book has had an effect on me, but I'll mention only three:
Ein Fisch ohne Fahrrad (A Fish Without a Bicycle) by Elizabeth Dunkel: At a time when I didn't know whether I wanted to love or be loved, or which one would be harder to bear.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: At a time when I felt I didn't trust myself to be the person I am.
The diaries of Anais Nin: To help me understand that I have a sexual identity.
Will there be a 27th book?
I'm working on a novel that is about being afraid that one is not good enough and what awaits us in the space between life and death. It also deals with the question of whether there is even such a thing as the "right" life. 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of
 Shelf Awareness. To read this 

Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness  (4/8/14), click HERE


The Little Paris Bookshop


Nina George's enchanting The Little Paris Bookshop deals with the nature of grief; the power of friendship, love and truth; and how reading and books have the capacity to change peoples' lives, souls and destinies. The narrative centers on 50-year-old Monsieur Jean Perdu, who owns a bookstore called the Literary Apothecary--actually a floating barge "the length of three truck trailers" that houses 8,000 books, moored on the Seine. Perdu lives at 27 Rue Montagnard and is a passionate bibliophile who believes that booksellers don't just look after books, they look after people. 

Things take a turn when two new residents move into Rue Montagnard. Max Jordan is a young author whose debut novel has made him famous, but he is plagued with writers' block. The other new neighbor is Madame Catherine, who moves into the flat across the hall from Perdu. The tenants of the building rally to help this newly cast-off wife who has nothing of her own to set up her new apartment. 

Perdu delivers a table to Madame Catherine's apartment, and she discovers a letter hidden inside that causes Perdu's head and heart to spiral into an emotional tailspin. He takes refuge in the Literary Apothecary, soon hauling anchor and setting sail--but not before Max, who's being pursued by paparazzi, jumps aboard the moving barge. 

George is a lyrical writer whose beautiful, sensory language and imagery enhance this adventurous, moving narrative. On their voyage, the men are frequently mistaken for father and son, and they pass the time by sharing life stories. In the end, their excursion propels Perdu to finally reconnect with himself--the person he was, is and who he will become in the future.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
Crown Publishing, $25.99 Hardcover, 9780553418774, 400 pp
Publication Date: June 23, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE 

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (6/30/14), click HERE

To read the full review of this novel as originally published as a special feature of Shelf Awareness: Maximum Shelf (4/8/14)--a much longer and much more comprehensive review--link HERE

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Jesus Cow

Humorist Michael Perry (Coop) makes a foray into fiction with The Jesus Cow, a novel about a small Midwest community that is transformed in profound and hilarious ways by a bull calf born in a barn on Christmas Eve.

Perry sets the story in Swivel, Wis.--population exaggerated at 562--only visible from the interstate by a long-stemmed, halogen-lit Kwik Pump gasoline sign whose "logo glows against the sky." He focuses on resident Harley Jackson, who lives in the house where he grew up, on 15 acres of deteriorating farmland. When his prized cow, Tina Turner, delivers a bull calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ on its black-and-white patchwork hide, Harley, a born-again believer, doesn't drop to his knees. Instead, he says, "Well, that's trouble."

Whether the calf was marked by God or not, Harley doesn't want anything to disturb his manageable, unassuming life. But when the Jesus calf escapes from the barn, the animal's image goes viral. Harley's upper Midwest farm soon becomes an international spiritual destination--a circus that sends the town residents into a tizzy. 

As in Truck: A Love Story and Visiting Tom, Perry once again delivers his own brand of outlandishness through rich, endearing characterizations of quirky small-town folks, and how their zany foibles and flaws mask underlying disappointments, secrets and longings. By deploying humor in depicting the often painful truths and absurdities of life, Perry successfully makes much larger statements about society and the human condition.

Harper, $25.99 Hardcover, 9780062289919, 304 pp
Publication Date: May 19, 2015
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE


Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (5/26/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (5/11/15). To read the longer review click HERE


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Amherst


Love and romance reside at the heart of British author William Nicholson's work, be it in his screenplays (Shadowlands) or in his prose fiction (Motherland). In his historical novel, Amherst, two secret love affairs--past and present--come together under the influence of poet, Emily Dickinson, who has a vivid impact on all their lives.

Nicholson threads the needle of his intriguing, well-plotted narrative with Alice Dickinson, a contemporary, 20-something, London copywriter whose shared last name with the poet draws her to Emily's work. Alice travels to Amherst, Ma., to research a screenplay she's writing about the real-life, 1880s love affair between Austin Dickinson, Emily's 50 year-old, unhappily married brother, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the 24 year-old wife of an Amherst College professor.

Once Alice arrives in the States, she boards in the home of Nick Crocker, a handsome, married, charismatic English Literature academic in his fifties. Alice's research into the mysteries of love, fidelity and passion is soon complicated when she and Nick begin an affair that ultimately parallels the intense complexity found in Austin and Mabel's relationship that was secretly consummated in the home that Emily Dickinson shared with her sister, Vinny. 

The plotlines of these tender, revealing love stories are told via alternating chapters. Nicholson draws from historical texts and includes letters along with Dickinson's poems in order to fictionally recreate the long-standing affair between Austin and Mabel—and the significant role that Emily, an enigmatic spinster-recluse, played in their romance, as well as how Emily's ghost permeates the relationship between Alice and Nick.


Amherst
 by William Nicholson
Simon & Schuster, $26 Hardcover, 9781476740409, 304 pp   
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (2/17/15), click HERE

Friday, May 22, 2015

Scent of Murder


In Scent of Murder, James O. Born delivers a suspenseful mystery about a specialized K-9 police unit in south Florida and its role in tracking a serial kidnapper and possible murderer.

Deputy Tim Hallett isn't having an easy time. A Caucasian cop, he is on the rocks with his African American girlfriend, with whom he shares custody of their four year-old son. He is also still trying to get back on track after being ousted from the detective bureau—he was accused of using inappropriate methods to catch a child molester. Now, two years later, Hallett is a handler of a loyal and instinctive Belgian Malinois police dog named, Rocky, who is called in, along with two other specialized K-9 teams, to search for the criminal-at-large. But will the case that nearly shattered Hallett's career somehow figure in and come back to haunt him?

Born brings readers inside the minds of cops, and he often shifts the viewpoint, with great effect, to reveal the experiences of the devoted, astute canines, as well. The additional perspective of the criminal--the inner workings of his distorted mind as he goes in pursuit of young women whom he can terrorize and dominate--serves to intensify the suspense.

As in his other novels, Born (Border War) layers in authentic details of his native state of Florida and multi-cultural aspects found in contemporary law enforcement. Fans of crime fiction will be drawn to the investigative aspects of the story, while dog lovers will be intrigued by the realistic exploration of courageous police handlers and their canine counterparts.

Scent of Murder by James O. Born
Forge Books,  $25.95 Hardcover, 9780765378477, 304 pp
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE


Sunday, May 17, 2015

House Broken


Geneva Novak is a successful veterinarian living in San Francisco with her husband and two rebellious teenagers. When she receives a phone call from her brother in Los Angeles notifying her that their mother, Helen, has been in a serious car accident, Geneva's world is upended. The urging of her always-optimistic husband--who comes from a loving yet often overbearing family very different from her own--convinces Geneva that taking in the convalescing Helen might help repair their broken and contentious mother-daughter relationship. Grudgingly, Geneva invites a reluctant Helen into their home in the hope that Helen might finally address questions that have remained unanswered for decades--questions about Geneva's long-deceased father, Geneva's sister who has exiled herself to Africa and Helen's chronic alcoholism. Unfortunately, Helen's arrival only heralds new, unexpected problems, and it seems that things might get worse before they get better.

House Broken, Sonja Yoerg's complex, sensitively crafted debut novel, emerges as a multigenerational saga largely narrated by Geneva, who often seems more capable of caring for--and more empathic toward--the animals in her life than people. The viewpoints of Helen and Ella, Geneva's 16-year-old daughter, help flesh out the story. The distinct, authentic voices of these women from three generations probe beneath the surface of their own personal realities, while also shining a light onto dark secrets--past and present--that reveal the flaws and often-irreconcilable differences within family life.

House Broken by Sonja Yoerg
New American Library, $15 Paperback, 9780451472137, 336 pp
Publication Date: January 6, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (1/9/15), click HERE

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Two


"I've always been interested in watching people together. I wonder what their story is, who they are to each other," explains photographer Melissa Ann Pinney in Two, a collection of more than 90 color images that focus on pairs of people and objects, accompanied by 10 essays by notable contemporary writers.

In this group of vivid, often mystical and playful images, Pinney explores connection, identity and relationships. There is a candid aesthetic to her work. Even her posed photographs grant viewers a glimpse into lives-in-action: a couple's embrace; a tender moment between mother and child; two nested teacups; a girl and her obedient dog; two barefoot, suspender-wearing Amish men staring into a placid sea; an elderly man having his hair done poolside.

The accompanying essays, which delve into the nature of pairs and twosomes, make the book even more compelling. Edwidge Danticat writes about having her feet washed by a stranger in church. Barbara Kingsolver expresses her feelings of being left out of the "charmed Romeo-Julietness" of her parents' marriage. Maile Meloy explores, with awe, the 70-year bond between her grandparents. Allan Gurganus considers the possibility of vanishing twin syndrome, and Elizabeth McCracken writes about her mother's enduring bond with her fraternal twin.

In the moving, eloquent opening essay, Ann Patchett notes that writers and photographers share a similar drive to exist "alone and in the world" in order to create their art. That concept makes Patchett and Pinney's collaborative exploration into the "the power of two" all the more thought-provoking.

Two by Melissa Ann Pinney
Harper Design, $29.99 Hardcover, 9780062334428, 208 pp
Publication Date: April 14, 2015
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE


Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (5/1/15), click HERE 

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (12/18/15). To read the longer review click HERE



Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Means


Douglas Brunt (Ghosts of Manhattan) brings readers deep into the competitive world of multimedia journalism as it intersects with the hard-boiled grit of politics. Spanning four years and various U.S. locales, The Means braids together three distinct points of view to form a compelling, complex plot that unspools gradually, deepening the mystery at the center of the book.

Samantha Davis, a former child actress, is smart, beautiful and ambitious. Now a lawyer, she's hired as a national TV news reporter. As she learns the ropes, often the hard way, she pursues an evolving news story concerning the upcoming presidential election that raises her profile and tests her integrity.


Tom Pauley is a handsome, North Carolina defense attorney. After he wins a controversial trial, the well-liked, middle-class fiscal conservative is tapped by the GOP to make a run for governor. Might his popularity and appealing poll numbers encourage him to set his sights on the White House?

Mitchell Mason is a study in personal and professional contradiction: ruthless one minute, caring and sensitive the next. He's a brash, headstrong Democrat serving as president in a post-Obama America. A scandal from his past, however, suddenly threatens to put his re-election bid in peril.

Brunt is meticulous and detailed-oriented. His finely tuned novel is crafted via cinematic scenes, rich in dialogue, that authentically reveal the trappings and snares of power, ambition and human nature. The corrosion of the U.S. political system--on both sides of the aisle--is at the heart of this engrossing, seductive political thriller served with a twist.

The Means by Douglas Brunt
Touchstone, $26.00 Hardcover, 9781476772578, 352 pp
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (9/23/14), click HERE