Sunday, February 22, 2015

Proof of Angels

When Sean Magee, a troubled 30-year-old firefighter, becomes trapped while battling a raging inferno, he bargains with God: "If you get me out of this... I promise... I'll be a better man." As if in answer to the prayer, a mysterious angelic light leads him to an escape, where he is forced to take a blind leap. His jump from the three-story building casts him into a new life filled with disabling and prolonged physical challenges. 

Sean's story is a spin-off thread from Mary Curran Hackett's previous novel, Proof of Heaven, in which a young boy with a life-threatening illness and his mother found their faith tested. "Uncle Sean"--a volatile, emotionally distant alcoholic--couldn't deal with their situation, so he ran away and created a new, single, solitary life in California. Proof of Angels, set three years later, delves into Sean's history, including how and why his heart was badly broken on an ill-fated trip to Italy years before.

After the fire, personal regret inhibits Sean's healing, and his physical immobility forces him to examine his conscience and make good on his life-saving promise to God. He must reconcile his past with the present, addressing his relationships with family, friends and caretakers who all have struggles of their own and, ultimately, with the woman he left behind across the ocean. Hackett delivers another gritty, yet hopeful story about the myriad ways broken human beings are often brought together to help and heal each other.

William Morrow & Company, $14.99 Paperback, 9780062279958, 320 pp
Publication Date: November 4, 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 (11/18/14), click HERE

Friday, February 13, 2015

Fretting Friday the 13th?

Friday, February 13, 2015
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views/ Guest Columnist" (Section A-9)

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Gift of Maybe: Finding Hope and Possibility in Uncertain Times

Before she became a business consultant and life coach, Allison Carmen was a stressed-out attorney working at a large Manhattan law firm. Plagued by depression, sleeplessness and hopelessness, she was "addicted to certainty," a need to know the future and what was going to happen next.

One day, Carmen's Qigong instructor shared a parable that sparked an epiphany, changing her way of thinking--and her life. Carmen realized that the unexpected is often viewed through a prism of negativity clouded by fear. She learned to apply a new approach--what she calls Maybe, a transformative, life-strengthening philosophy. No matter how dire a situation may appear or how far it may deviate from the plan, Maybe encourages us to investigate what is possible in a situation, rather than what is impossible. Seemingly bad circumstances, disappointments, failures, struggles and losses can become gateways that lead toward positive breakthroughs.

Carmen illustrates her Maybe philosophy with examples from her own life and those of ordinary people who have faced challenges in business, relationships, health, finance and retirement. She also cites stories of notable figures, such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, whose personal setbacks have often become sources of empowerment. Thought-provoking questions and strategies, such as breathing exercises, visualization techniques, meditations and mantras, will inspire seekers challenged by uncontrollable aspects of life to consciously bend their minds toward the idea that everything has the power to be a good and positive life force.

Perigee Trade, $15 Paperback, 9780399169533, 352 pp
Publication Date: November 4, 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 (11/18/14), click HERE

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Girl on the Train

Rachel is a "soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic" who exists on the periphery of life since her divorce. She pines for and stalks Tom, who lives with his new family in the house he and Rachel used to share. Every day, Rachel rides a train past her old neighborhood, snatching a momentary glimpse into other lives. From this vantage point, she fixates on one couple she often sees, idolizing them: "They're what I lost, they're everything I want to be."

One day, as the train passes the house, Rachel spies the woman kissing a strange man in her backyard. This discovery shatters Rachel's illusions about the "happy" couple, so she binge drinks to the point of blacking out. The following day, when the news reports the woman is missing, Rachel vaguely recalls having exited the train in her old neighborhood that night and subsequently convinces herself that she may be involved. Unfortunately, Rachel can't remember much else--including where and how she received cuts on her hand. Determined to reconstruct the night in question and solve the mystery, she soon becomes entangled in the police investigation.

Paula Hawkins fashions The Girl on the Train from a staggered timeline and three female narrators. Rachel is the anchor, though she's not always understandable or trustworthy; Hawkins fills in the missing pieces via flashbacks and passages narrated by the missing woman and Rachel's ex's new wife. En route to a terrorizing, twisted conclusion, all three women--and the men with whom they share their lives--are forced to dismantle their delusions about others and themselves, their choices and their respective relationships.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, $26.95 Hardcover, 9781594633669, 336 pp
Publication Date: January 13, 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 (1/13/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (1/5/15). To read the longer review click HERE

Sunday, January 4, 2015

BOMB: The Author Interviews

Who better to ask a writer about writing than another writer? For more than 30 years, BOMB, a magazine of essays, literature and visual portfolios, has been publishing in-depth interviews with artists conducted by artists of all disciplines. In BOMB: The Author Interviews, publisher and editor Betsy Sussler collects 35 of the best conversations between influential and intellectual authors of world literature.

The Q&As are intimate and delve into aspects of the writer's craft, including the importance of sentences, rhythm and pacing, creating characters, narrative shaping, literary influences, editing and revision, the publishing industry and the demands of the writer's life amid more mundane concerns. They are intimate and give rare insight into the creative processes, feelings and work habits of contemporary prose writers and poets such as Sam Lipsyte, Steven Millhauser, Courtney Eldridge, Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolff and Jeffrey Eugenides. Each conversation differs in topic and tone. Clipped, clever banter infuses the exchange between Kathy Acker and Mark Magill, while a host of the Q&As convey mutual admiration, as evidenced when Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat discuss their ancestry and what it's like to be "book obsessed."

Articulating the complexity of the craft, the challenges of the writing life and the impetus behind certain works sometimes proves difficult, but each dialogue sheds light onto the act of writing itself and the profound satisfaction in having created something lasting on the page. Such revelations are bound to be helpful and insightful to readers and other writers intrigued and mystified by the process.

Bomb: The Author Interviews by Bomb Magazine; Betsy Sussler, ed.
Soho Press, $40.00 Hardcover, 9781616953799, 480 pp
Publication Date: November 4, 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 (11/3/14), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a much longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (11/3/14). To read the longer review click HERE

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy 2015 !

 How will you launch the New Year?

Thursday, January 1, 2015
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views/ Guest Columnist" (Section A-19)

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Favorite Reads of 2014

As a book reviewer for Shelf Awareness, I read and review at least three titles per month. Below is a short list of some of my favorite reads from 2014.  Hope you'll discover a title, plot line, topic or author that might interest you enough to feed your e-reader and/or support your local indie bookshop.

To learn more about any of the selections, click on the highlighted titles for additional information:

This riveting short book, with concise chapters, is narrated by a disillusioned, middle-aged French woman who owns a fabric shop. When she wins the lottery, she chooses not to tell those she loves about the windfall right away. An interesting examination about want and need and pondering changes in life.

Irish-Catholic family dysfunction straddles the past and the present in this  accessible, multi-generational saga (with dashes of humor and romance) about an aging woman with "holes in her memory" who is forced to stitch together the past in order to better grasp the truth of who she is.  

This absurdist comedy of manner offers a timeless, vivid take on the 1990s - before the advent of cell phones, email and reality shows. When an aging mother suffers a freak accident, her two disparate daughters, sisters who've never seen eye-to-eye, are reunited and forced to confront each other and figure out what they truly want out of life.  

An atmospheric historical novel centered around an arranged marriage and a cabinet-sized replica of 17th Century Amsterdam home. When an elusive miniaturist is enlisted to furnish the house and replicate dolls of the inhabitants, eerie and chilling coincidences start to mirror real-life happenings . . . part love story, part suspense novel, part thriller. 

This book was released in 2013, but I only read it in 2014.  This thought-provoking novel of contemporary domestic fiction is set in Australia and centers on the lives of three women. Moriarity braids the tumultuous threads of each separate life together to explore the ways in which, married or single, we can never really know the ones we love.

A tender, graceful story about a successful businesswoman who must settle her great-aunt Ruby's estate - including deciding the fate of Ruby's beloved children's bookshop in Seattle. While sorting through papers, letters between Ruby and Margaret Wise Brown, the writer of Goodnight Moon, a classic children's book, are discovered. In the process, secrets are revealed that have the power to change lives.

A single, hermetic, New York City writer--with a keen eye and perceptive, searing wit--goes on a quest to find Mr. Right.  But when a serious illness strikes, this very entertaining social satire--that pokes fun at helicopter moms, young/self-important urban professionals, entrenched New Yorkers and fanatical city dog-owners--gains unexpected depth and profundity.

Caldwell writes exquisite, insightful memoirs about turning points in life, and this time she delivers a moving and powerful story about her midlife odyssey to reconstruct her leg crippled by and degenerating from childhood polio. A ruminative, wise, uplifting meditation on growing older and wiser.

The true story about this secretive nanny who was a gifted (yet closeted) street photographer is intriguing, however sad. Maier's photography only came to light and brought her fame after her death, when a trove of more than 100,000 images were discovered in a locker. This mammoth collection brings together the best of her best work.

A riveting thriller that keeps readers consistently off-balance. The story centers on a lonely, single woman--an alcoholic jilted in romance--who rides the rails in London and suddenly finds herself caught up in murder investigation in her old neighborhood.  Some are predicting this will be the Gone Girl of the new year!

Happy Reading in 2015 !  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Christmas Cat

A single, 34 year-old man, with an aversion and allergy to cats, is faced with the methodical task of finding suitable homes for six precious felines in The Christmas Cat, a heartwarming novel by Melody Carlson (The Christmas Dog). Garrison Brown—trying to build a new life in Seattle after spending nine years doing missionary work in Uganda, battling malaria and nursing a broken heart in romance—receives word, near Christmas, that his widowed grandmother has died of a heart attack.

Summoned to Vancouver, Washington to settle her affairs, Garrison is surprised to learn that his frugal "Gram"—who raised him after his parents died in a car crash when he was 12 years-old—left behind her house, fully paid off, along with a substantial nest egg. Before Garrison can claim his inheritance, however, he is designated as "the keeper of the cats," responsible for following Gram's detailed, stringent criteria to match each cat's unique personality to his or her prospective new owner. Once Garrison can prove each cat is happily settled, the selected adoptive families will each receive $10,000. Where does this leave Garrison—especially with his feelings about cats? And just how should he roll out the plan in order to sift through suitable adoptive homes from mere gold diggers?

What ensues is a lighthearted story of Garrison's reconnection to his old neighborhood, his interacting with strangers who may become friends—or even something more—and his rekindling old hopes and dreams. Carlson, prolific in feel-good, faith-based fiction, once again delivers an affirming tale brimming with compassion and charm.

The Christmas Cat by Melody Carlson
Fleming H. Revell Company, $15.99 Hardcover, 9780800719661, 169 pp
Publication Date: September 2, 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 (9/12/14), click HERE

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Writer's Garden

Jackie Bennett (former editor of The Garden Design Journal) offers an intimate glimpse into the country homes and gardens of notable, accomplished British poets, essayists and novelists in The Writer's Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors. This coffee table book examines the lives of nineteen, diversely accomplished British writers and how their  private residences facilitated their work: Virginia Woolf wandered the room-like gardens at Monk's House while she labored over Mrs. Dalloway. Charles Dickens tended daily to the gardens at Gad's Hill Place before tackling masterpieces like Great Expectations. The woodland paths and boathouse at Greenway inspired Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly. And would there have ever been a James and the Giant Peach had Roald Dahl not studied his own fruit orchard and crawly creatures in the gardens at Gipsy House?

Archival images and vivid landscape photographs by Richard Hanson accompany the profiles and enhance each intimate glimpse into the countryside sanctuaries that fed the imaginations of great writers. "Written in Residence" sidebars offer lists of works created at each locale, and epilogues explain what became of the homes and gardens after the death of each revered wordsmith.

(Photographs by Richard Hanson)
Frances Lincoln Publishers, $40.00 Hardcover, 9780711234949, 176 pp
Publication Date: November 1, 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 (11/29/14), click HERE

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

 Can Thanksgiving still be Thanksgiving without serving a turkey dinner?

Thursday, November 27, 2014
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views" (Section A-23)

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sonya Cobb: The Value of Craftsmanship and Art

The Writer's Life

 Sonya Cobb has worked as an advertising copywriter for 26 years. After having her children, she turned to writing fiction as a way to reclaim a part of herself "that had been neglected for way too long." In her debut novel, The Objects of Her Affection (read the book review below), a wife and mother becomes a thief who steals Renaissance works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cobb lives in Westchester County, N.Y., with her two children and her husband, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You say that the heroine of the novel "bears more than a passing resemblance" to you. Was this a conscious choice?
Job Number One for me was making my story feel as real and true as possible, and like many first-time novelists, I found it easiest to tap into my own reality for material. Becoming a mother was a powerful experience, with a lot of very complicated, mixed emotions that I thought could, in certain situations, drive someone to desperate acts. I decided to start with the very real feelings I had as a working mother with two small children. Then I imposed some dire circumstances on my character and imagined what the result would be. So it was a little bit like exploring my own life in a parallel universe, if things had gone very badly for me.
Tell us about the research needed to write this novel.
I love research because it provides a fun little escape from the tough business of writing--but you don't feel guilty about it because it's absolutely necessary. My husband has a vast library of art books, which I turned to for information about Nuremberg goldsmiths and Saint-Porchaire ceramics. I also spent time wandering the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and exploring the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's web site. Finally, I turned to auction websites when I was looking for smaller, not-quite-museum-quality objects that could plausibly be found languishing in a storage room.
How and why did you select the specific art and artifacts the heroine steals in the novel?
I chose decorative objects because they're easier to slip into a bag than, say, a painting. I picked silver because there's so much of it out there--some of it very old and valuable, most of it not. So it's plausible that a museum could have received a large batch of family silver that went straight into storage, and that one or two super-valuable pieces could have escaped the curators' notice.
Some of the objects I describe are real, and some are loosely based on real objects. All of the artists mentioned are real. The Jamnitzer mirror is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The van Vianen tazza, a footed dish, is loosely based on a piece in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Saint-Porchaire candlestick is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
In the story, museum security seems surprisingly lax. Is this typical? 
For the most part, the scenarios that allow Sophie, the protagonist, to steal objects simply wouldn't happen in a modern-day museum. Storage practices are quite rigorous, and visitors--even curators' spouses--are never allowed to be anywhere near museum objects without an escort. They're never allowed to enter storage areas at all. The system of object cards that I describe in the book has been replaced by collection management software such as The Museum System (TMS), which is widely used by most major museums to keep track of works of art.
Illegal art trafficking contributes to the suspense of the novel. What knowledge or experience, if any, do you have with black markets and dealers?
Early on in the writing of the novel, I was inspired by Robert Wittman's book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures. The founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, Wittman describes dozens of thefts that he investigated over the years. I was most fascinated by the petty thefts--the small, often unnoticed objects that would be pilfered from storage areas by museum employees. I learned that while famous works of art are almost impossible to sell, those smaller objects often disappear into the black market without a trace. 
An old house and a major renovation figure prominently in the story. Is this something that personally interests you?
My husband and I renovated a Civil War-era row house very similar to the one I describe in the book. I fell in love with the house and its history. The row house was an early example of mass production: every house on a block was exactly the same, with stock decorative details that were produced in great quantities. Nevertheless, everything was made from noble materials, with care and attention to aesthetic matters. In my house we found, under the wallpaper, a signature by "The Plaster Boys," dated 1863. They were proud of their work! Beauty, artistry and craftsmanship were still valued at that time, even as we emerged from the industrial revolution. Sophie and I both feel sad about the demise of those values in today's world.
Please discuss the themes of the novel--the idea of want and need and the value we place on things and aspects of our lives.
Sometimes I feel oppressed by the amount of "stuff" we're surrounded by in today's world--the piles of cheap, mass-produced goods we bring home from the store in big plastic bags. These goods are inexpensive and plentiful, so you could say they have little value in a monetary sense, and they lack value because we have no connection to the people who made them. If you buy a ceramic bowl at Target, you probably don't spend any time thinking about the person who designed it, or the person who glazed it. But if you own a tazza crafted by van Vianen--the silversmith who eventually left the trade to take over his father's brewery--you own a part of someone's story. That, in itself, has a lot of value apart from the aspects of supply and demand. It connects us to one another, even across centuries.
Sophie, the protagonist, is struggling with her own sense of value, and work is important to her sense of identity, just as it probably was for van Vianen and Jamnitzer. When Sophie learns the story behind the van Vianen tazza, she begins to understand the true value of work, and she begins to grasp the enormity of her crime.
The Objects of Her Affection blends suspense with domestic and marital issues. Did you find it difficult to balance these aspects?
It was incredibly difficult... and tricky: the story has to move, but it takes time to develop your characters' inner struggles. I've never truly enjoyed novels that are purely plot-driven or purely character-driven, so I set out knowing very clearly what my task would be. Being a first-time novelist, though, I had to toss out writing that was either too slow or too fast or not contributing toboth character and story. 
What are your future literary plans?
I'm working on a second novel that explores themes of work, class, human nature and creativity through the eyes of two very different characters. 

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  (8/29/14), click HERE