Book Review, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin sets her story in an independent bookstore. A wonderful setting for readers who enjoy perusing for their next readby Gabrielle Zevin.

The first few chapters both compelled me to read on and revealed mysteries I wanted answered. Although the chapters seemed disjunct at first, I trusted the author to deliver.  The first chapter introduces a book seller attempting to meet the bookstore owner but is rebuffed. The second presents us with the mystery of who stole the owner’s first edition of an early Poe work. And the third chapter leaves A. J. Fikry with an infant abandoned at his story. These three key events become the focal points around which the story revolves and from them the story is bit-by-bit fit together.

Gabrielle Zevin begins each chapter with notes written by A.J. about a book he read and what he thinks about it. I noticed that the notes become less coherent as the novel progressed, but clues to the reason for the cryptic notes and why Fikry wrote them aren’t resolved until the end of the story.

Gabrielle Zevin Ties Up the Lose Ends

All characters, mysteries and issues are tied up at the end of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Although Zevin goes out of point-of-view to accomplish this, it helped to bring finality to the story. For me, the end was too expected. Nothing particularly fresh was presented, however I must admit, I cried.

Book Review, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
on January 1st 1970
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 260
Goodreads

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

We are not quite novels.

We are not quite short stories.

In the end, we are collected works.

A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died; his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history; and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island—from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, he can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, though large in weight—an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world. Or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming.

Book Review, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, National Book Award

National Book Award for Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

In Challenger Deep, Neal Shusterman puts us into the mind of a fifteen year old, however, this youth is challenged with schizophrenia. Shusterman writes from the character’s point-of-view (POV). This popular narration style is particularly effective in this book. The author blends real with delusional worlds as he takes us on a surreal journey. While issues about family, friends, paranoia and effects of medicinal drugs arise, they come from the patient’s perspective.

A good read for those interested in teen schizophrenia, however, I found myself skimming. Perhaps the novel captured the perspective from the inside too realistically, for my taste. Events become muddled and difficult to follow, such as a mentally ill person may experience and which happened to me while reading.

Neal Shusterman draws inspiration from family

Shusterman grew up with mental illness in his family. His brother suffers from the disease.  Because he knows the topic well, he captures the insiders view in every aspect of his story.  An interview on National Book Organization‘s web site provides some background on the author.

Try Belzhar by Meg Woltzer for another perspective on teen mental health.
Book Review, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, National Book AwardChallenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Published by HarperTeen on April 21st 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 308
Goodreads

Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence, to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

A captivating and powerful novel that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by one of today's most admired writers for teens.

Book Review, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki covers a lot of ground in A Tale for the Time BeingShe juxtaposits a sixteen year old, troubled Japanese teenager with a Canadian writer’s older perspective. Both characters search for meaning in their live’s. Their thoughts touch on the cord of how similar we are despite distance or age. by Ruth Ozeki

Nao spent most of her childhood in Silicon Valley, before returning to Japan. Back in Japan her father spirals into depressive, leaving Nao on her own to deal with the change. She gains some reprieve in her 104 year old Buddhist great-grandmother. Across the ocean, in a secluded island of British Columbia, Canada, Ruth finds Nao’s diary. The diary inspires the writer who’s career and life lack the spark it once did. 

The book is a little long at four hundred pages. Although the story integrated lots of great information about environment, culture and philosophy into each of the heroine’s journeys, Oseki could cut or integrate some into another book. That said, A Tale for the Time Being is a book to savor. It’s not where the plot is heading that makes this an interesting read, but how it gets there.  An ultimate compliment to the author is that a reread would bring additional insights; learning, seeing, smelling and enjoying the story.

Ruth Ozeki Writes in Two Points-of-View

Chapters alternate between Ruth’s and Nao’s point-of-view (POV). Ruth’s story comes through a step removed in third-person limited, while Ozeki presents a more intimate first-person POV for her Japanese teenager in the guise of the girl’s diary.

Sometimes the change of POV is disconcerting, although most of the time it works well. Lots of great footnotes on Japanese culture at the bottom of pages add another dimension to the story.

If you enjoy A Tale for the Time Being Ruth Ozeki has written many other books you may be interested in.

Book Review, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Viking on March 12th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 422
Goodreads

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future. 

Full of Ozeki’s signature humour and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

Book Review, Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

A. S. King gives us a well written coming-of-age story in Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Vera struggles with more than any teenager should. Her mother abandoned her, her father struVera Dietz by A.S. Kingggles with life, her best friend’s father beats his mother and love seems always out of grasp for Vera. Pressures from the gang at school demean Vera and when her best friend and love of her life rejects her, her world implodes.

A difficult story for me to read, because everyone makes bad decisions, one after another. They never seem to make a good decision. No reprieve appears in sight. Even King’s ending laid a heavy hand on the heroine.

Undoubtedly, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is an important depiction of how life for many teens works. For those more fortunate, the story depicts issues some teens face, however, it hurts to visualize such a bleak life as completely as King depicted Vera’s.

Vera Dietz comes to life with style

King writes in a familiar first person perspective that suits the story well. Written in Vera’s voice, the style is believable and carries you into her world.

Book Review, Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. KingPlease Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
Published by Ember on April 10th 2012
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 326
Goodreads

Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie Kahn. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything. So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone—the kids at school, his family, even the police. But will she emerge to clear his name? Does she even want to? Edgy and gripping, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is an unforgettable novel: smart, funny, dramatic, and always surprising.
From the Hardcover edition.

Book Review, The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery,

Many of you are familiar with Louise Penny’s Québécois inspector, Armand Gamache. A character full of warmth, compassion and, by Louise Pennyalways necessary for a great inspector, an ingenious perspective. When Gamache’s friend and neighbor’s husband fails to show up for a date on the one year anniversary of their separation she wants to know why. The search for his whereabouts leads Gamache from Paris, to Italy, to the recluse reaches of wilderness Canada, where the estranged husband has gone to redeem himself.

Penny paces her mystery. She takes the reader on circuitous paths that develop characters and enriches the overall ambiance of the story. By the end we are as fond of the isolated community of Three Pines, where Gamache lives, as the characters directly connected with the mystery. Fear not, however, as Inspector Gamaches’ patience and understanding of human psychology prevail to unravel the mystery.

Louise Penny Writes with Style

Once again I enjoyed Penny’s mystery. She writes in third person omniscient, developing the plot with care and paying attention to the details.

I didn’t like the end of The Long Way Home. It was too expected–although perhaps necessary in order to remain within the mystery genre’s expectation.

For those interested in writing: Take a look at Penny’s use of sentence fragments. She builds paragraphs on incomplete sentences that create images with the least amount of words. Penny uses this style to its fullest effect in her later novels.

Point-of-view shifts often, sometimes for only a short period of time. This technique builds rapport with multiple characters.

Although Penny breaks some of the rules teachers advocate these days, her fragmented sentences and word choices create a familiar atmosphere appropriate for the caring Inspector Gamache.

Book Review, The Long Way Home by Louise PennyThe Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #10) by Louise Penny
Series: Inspector Gamache #10
Published by Minotaur Books on August 26th 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 373
Goodreads

Happily retired in the village of Three Pines, Armand Gamache, former Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sûreté du Québec, has found a peace he’d only imagined possible. On warm summer mornings he sits on a bench holding a small book, The Balm in Gilead, in his large hands. "There is a balm in Gilead," his neighbor Clara Morrow reads from the dust jacket, "to make the wounded whole."
While Gamache doesn’t talk about his wounds and his balm, Clara tells him about hers. Peter, her artist husband, has failed to come home. Failed to show up as promised on the first anniversary of their separation. She wants Gamache’s help to find him. Having finally found sanctuary, Gamache feels a near revulsion at the thought of leaving Three Pines. "There’s power enough in Heaven," he finishes the quote as he contemplates the quiet village, "to cure a sin-sick soul." And then he gets up. And joins her.
Together with his former second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna Landers, they journey deeper and deeper into Québec. And deeper and deeper into the soul of Peter Morrow. A man so desperate to recapture his fame as an artist, he would sell that soul. And may have. The journey takes them further and further from Three Pines, to the very mouth of the great St. Lawrence river. To an area so desolate, so damned, the first mariners called it The land God gave to Cain. And there they discover the terrible damage done by a sin-sick soul.

Book Review, The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr takes us into the world of classical piano competitions in The Lucy Variations.  At the beginning of the story, we find  that Lucy walked off stage at one of the highest level competitions. Her Sara Zarrfamily did not take it well. From there, Lucy must navigate within her new world, a world without playing piano.

Although her family pushed her beyond her emotional limit, Lucy’s passion for music remains clear. Her life doesn’t feel complete without it. While struggling to determine her own compass among the adults who control her life, she befriends her brother’s teacher. His affect on her life, a gift or a burden, we must read to determine.

By placing Lucy in the world of competitive music, which few of us are familiar with, Zarr creates a coming-of-age story that takes you out of your world and yet is very understandable. We can all relate to the pressures Lucy feels, the betrayals she confronts, and her struggle to do what she knows is right for herself. Lucy works through her issues like a true heroine, someone we’d like to emulate if we were in a similar situation.

Accolades for Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr writes stories with strong female heroines. She received the National Book Award Finalist for Story of a Girl. The National Book Foundation conducted an interview with her after the award.

POV questionable at times, written in 3rd close but sometimes I questioned whether it was 1st because

Book Review, The Lucy Variations by Sara ZarrThe Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
on May 7th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult, Coming of Age
Pages: 309
Goodreads

Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain.
That was all before she turned fourteen.
Now, at sixteen, it's over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano -- on her own terms. But when you're used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?
The Lucy Variations is a story of one girl's struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. It's about finding joy again, even when things don't go according to plan. Because life isn't a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.

Book Review of Sacred River by Debu Majumdar

The Story of a Temple Gold Heist,

In Sacred River, A Himalyan Journey, Debu Majumdar introduces us to East Indian characters from all walks of life.  He weaves them Sacred River by Debu Majumdartogether as they journey to the source of the Sacred River, each for their own reasons. The meld of characters on their disparate quests immerses the reader in the complexities of India’s rich and diverse culture.

The question of ‘what happens to the gold that monasteries receive from worshipers’ became the focus of the murderous prologue scene. From there we follow three primary story lines. The poor farmer Jaglish, a light to cherish, begins and ends Majumdar’s story. Persons associated with the SMS society contrast with the farmer’s endearing role. The SMS needs money for philanthropic endeavors. Although work by the SMS helps the poor, its leaders  plan to grow the charity exponentially, thus putting them into a precarious financial position. When they acquire an old manuscript with a mysterious sequence of numbers, they make plans to rob a temple at the source of the Ganges.

Majumdar introduces Shovik in chapter 5. Although Shovik grew up in India, he married and lived with his family in the USA. His midlife crisis drew him back to India. Majumdar intertwines the three story lines, with each character reflecting a different aspect of India.

Backstories peppered throughout enlighten the reader on motives and personal challenges. We travel through a couple childhoods which took me out of the main plot. But ultimately, the story returns to the gold heist.

Debu Majumdar Writes India as a Character

India exists as a character itself in Majumdar’s tale. Rich detail on the intricacies of Indian culture impregnate every page. His descriptions take you there. You walk the streets and meet the people.  Majumdar blends history and religion, while Hindu folk tales add yet another layer.

The cover fooled me. It gave me the impression of a spiritual book, rather than a fiction novel. While the spiritual transformations that the journey to the source of the Ganges prompts is the theme of the story, the gold heist functions as the plot holding everything together. The heist itself is a fun read.

Majumdar wins

Literary Suspence/Adventure

Book Review of Sacred River by Debu MajumdarSacred River: A Himalayan Journey by Debu Majumdar
Published by Bo-Tree House on October 10th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Historical Fiction
Goodreads

"Mystery, love and beautiful scenery wrapped into a terrific journey."
- Jim Porell, Pine Plains, NY.
An Indian-American journeys to mystical Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas, searching for peace and renewal. As he travels, a pilgrimage temple near the glacier becomes the target of a gold heist. Pilgrims, thieves, tourists, and events flow toward the temple independently with their individual stories. The life struggles of an illiterate farmer, lofty goals of a charitable organization, desire for fame, romance, and cultural nuance, along with Indian myths and legends, supply colorful threads to the story. Their paths cross and re-cross until the ultimate denouement. As little tributaries flow together to make the magnificent Ganges River, each thread is woven to make a beautiful tapestry with an uplifting conclusion. While, on the surface, all action centers on the treasure heist, underneath, this is a story of a spiritual quest invigorated by Indian mythological and folk tales. The novel is also a travelogue of India; through the events of the journey and planning for the gold heist, the reader comes face to face with the real India. A Himalayan journey that will touch your soul.

Praise for Sacred River

Sacred River is a deceptively readable novel that begins with murder and ends with a temple treasure hunt. The real treasure, however, is the intervening story which unwraps India itself--its deep history, dramatic geography, captivating people and above all its spirituality, both Hindu and Buddhist. The writing is clear, swift and engaging, as if written for young readers, but readers of every age will enjoy and profit from it. Since at least Tagore, modern Indian writers have offered great gifts to the rest of the world. Sacred River is another one.
- Jerry Brady, former newspaper publisher, Peace Corps staff member, and co-founder of one of the world's largest micro-lending organizations, Accion International.
Sacred River graciously introduces us to the old songs and stories about gods and heroes who make sites sacred and pilgrimages fruitful. And as an Indian story of pilgrimage ought to do, Sacred River also teaches its readers that the best fruits of pilgrimage are reserved for those who do not seek them.
- David Curley, Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.
A brilliant novel, which gives a wonderfully vivid flavour of India with all its idiosyncrasies and contradictions. It transports you there, from Delhi to the foothills of the Himalayas, and there is an intriguing glimpse into Hindu beliefs and gods with insightful snippets of scriptures and stories. The novel also involves an ancient manuscript, a mysterious number sequence, and a plot to steal temple treasures. Fascinating and thought provoking that will bowl you along, wanting to know more.
- Barbara Hall, Nibley Green, Gloucestershire, U.K.
Mystery, love and beautiful scenery wrapped into a terrific journey. This book has elements of both a murder/mystery and historical fiction. What is unexpected is the spiritual journey that the author took with his characters, which might also be a pilgrimage of sorts for the reader. There are some great life lessons shared in the book, intertwined with a love story, deception and intrigue and a wonderful travelogue on the trip to the head of the Ganges River. All of these different angles are woven together in a very enjoyable way. It is worth every minute!
- Jim Porell, IBM Distinguished Engineer, retired, Pine Plains, NY.