Tag Archives: Penguin

Review: A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan

5th August 2013

pg1*I received this book from the publisher The Viking Press in exchange for an honest review.

Sometimes, but not often, you open a book, read the first few pages, and know without a doubt that you will thoroughly enjoy a book. A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan was just that sort of book. As is obvious by the title, this is a literary mystery but not one you might expect.

Jo Donovan owns Hamish and Donovan, a literary agency handed down to her by her former boss, mentor, and friend Molly. Though she occasionally doubts the method in which she was chosen to handle the firm – she was married to the famous author Hugo Donovan – Jo knows she’s good at her job. She runs a tight ship, cultivating her loyal staff  – Lorna, Harriet, Jean-Paul, and Chloe – and using their strengths to benefit the authors she represents. Together, they weed through submissions to determine which deserve a chance and which either aren’t good enough or don’t fit the image of Hamish and Donovan.

Those rejections come under scrutiny when an author dressed in a trench and fedora accosts Jo outside her building, telling her ominously, “Mark the time, Jo. Remember this moment. Both our lives are about to change.” Chalking it up to the peculiarities of some writers, Jo entertains others with the tale of the man she dubs Sam Spade until a cruel act of sabotage follows, making Sam Spade seem much more sinister. Another client, Max Messinger, whose loyalty is only matched by a guard dog given to Jo by another author, is a former FBI agent who helps the agency navigate life after the attack, but he’s also a source of support for Jo who is unused to dealing with police and specifically lead detective Tommy Cullen, a former boyfriend.

As Jo watches her agency and her life come under attack, she also has to examine the life she led with her beloved husband Hugo and who she is without him, and though I loved this book in its entirety, I especially loved watching Jo’s painful transformation. She mentions at some point that we craft our own stories of our lives, and I definitely believe that to be true. For Jo, a difficult childhood means that she really equates much of her marriage with her life story as she knows it, and the realization that a. her story must include the bad bits and b. even her marriage may not have been what she thought is both heartbreaking and lovely.

A Dangerous Fiction is also full of perfect readerly moments such as these:

As I ate, I felt stronger. The dark cloud had receded, if only for the moment. Raymond Carver was right, I thought. It is the small, good things that save us.

I have known only one man as vivid and outsized as a proper fictional protagonist, and reader, I married him.

Yet the novel never bargains away story, character, or mystery for its wit.

Add this book to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara

24th May 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Penguin in exchange for an honest review in coordination with Historical Fiction Virtual Author Tours.

In 1934, Cascade, Massachusetts holds tight to its vestiges of glamour. Once the place of a thriving Shakespearean theater where a young Rudolph Valentino graced the stage, the Crash has tarnished the appearance of the once-glitzy resort town.

Desdamona Hart Spaulding, the daughter of the theater’s owner, has left her dreams of a career in art and returned to care for her ailing and bankrupt father, marrying a local who has loved her for quite some time, Asa, in a move she quickly regrets. Once her father dies, Dez realizes just how provincial her life in Cascade will remain, particularly with the theater languishing and the town facing flooding to create a new reservoir.

When Jacob Solomon first appears on her property, commenting on Dez’s painting, Dez recognizes a kindred spirit, and her desire to be free takes over.

Charlie mentions in her review that the word “cascade” refers not only to the falls for which the town is named but also for the overwhelming emotion Dez experiences throughout the novel, and I think that’s apt. Jacob and his weekly meetings with her energize Dez. The two talk about art and artists, techniques and tools, the time flying by. She begins to romanticize their encounters until she obsesses over his visits.

Dez talks quite a bit about responsibility – her responsibility as a wife, a daughter, a citizen of Cascade – but ultimately, what wins out is her responsibility to her art. It’s a bold decision, as Dez leaves a good man, a man who cares for her, in order to pursue this life. O’Hara doesn’t help Dez either, making Asa out to be a hillbilly or a cad. Instead, he’s a stand-up guy and one that, even as you know it’s right for Dez to leave, you hurt for.

Though Jacob Solomon is ostensibly who Dez loves, I did feel that he’s just a means to an end. Dez wants to leave Asa and Cascade but cannot seem to leave just to paint and live in New York without something else propelling her forward. In fact, my one complaint would be that I wish Dez would have been able to acknowledge that. There was nothing to Jacob and Dez’s relationship that felt concrete or significant enough to have haunted her for as long as it does.

In some ways, Cascade reminded me of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub – the theater, the doting father, the failing marriage. Plus, both are interesting examinations of women who make nontraditional choices in order to forge a life for themselves.

Dez is selfish, but I think O’Hara explores the negative connotation of that word quite well. Dez sacrifices her marriage, her father’s legacy, and, though it isn’t all down to her, the fate of her town for her own gain. And if asked, I doubt she’d regret it.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

7th May 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, in exchange for an honest review.

In one of the greatest scenes I’ve read in recent memory, Julian English fantasizes about throwing his drink in the face of Harry Reilly. What has Harry done? Nothing, really. But at this particular dance, Harry Reilly tells story after story, and it’s not just that – Harry has a specific method to his storytelling, mannerisms of which Julian tires. But he dissuades himself, reminding himself that Harry has loaned him quite a bit of money to pull Julian out of a pinch at the Cadillac dealership. Plus, Julian’s afraid people might think it’s because Harry dotes on Julian’s wife, Caroline.

The narrative passes, and then one partygoer tells another that Julian did indeed toss his drink into Harry Reilly’s face, and as the inside of the book says, “in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction.”

Just a small indiscretion in the scheme of things, really, but in 1930s suburban Pennsylvania, Julian’s action threatens to topple the carefully placed house of cards that the city of Gibbsville and its elite have created. In a society where single men and women are paired off based on their looks and prospects, and the society page lists who attended whose party, Julian has willfully placed himself outside the rules, and O’Hara depicts Julian’s existential crisis in brilliant moments of stream of consciousness and internal monologue. As Julian remarks at one point, there are other, worse indiscretions – affairs conducted under the nose of one’s wife; domestic abuse; suicide – but those are one offs. Julian English’s breach is not just societal; it’s seen as evidence of English’s hatred of Catholics (Reilly is a Catholic), as evidence of his snobbishness, as his place is higher than that of Reilly’s.

John O’Hara is near brutal in his descriptions of the various characters in Appointment in Samarra – deftly describing a well-respected doctor and a small-time whiskey runner in equally harsh light. Even Julian’s wife, the lovely and admired Caroline, doesn’t escape his ire. Though she loves her husband, she’s much too concerned with the demise of the couple’s social status to concern herself with her husband’s rapid descent. Yet even in O’Hara’s bald depictions of these people, there is sympathy, to the end. For, if any people were more a product of the times, it’s the Gibbsville set. Bound by their conventions but expected to be young and free and daring, the men and women in Appointment in Samarra are, much like the title of the book, destined to burn quick and bright before meeting their fates.

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The Books of BEA (And a little treat for you!)

27th June 2012

How have I not yet managed to talk about the books I got at BEA? I will tell you, though, that I am so excited about the books I had shipped home. There are only 15 of them, but wow, do they look good. These 15 represent almost all different publishers, many of them independent. They range from stories about an artist who does reproductions to a biography of a body part. Of the 15 books, 8 are by women, 7 are by men. Three are distinctly nonfiction, with Naomi Wolf’s Vagina in a category of its own. In all their, ahem, glory…

From the top:

From the top:

  • Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City Who Made the World by Boris Johnson/Riverhead Books
  • Instant by Chris Bonanos/Princeton Architectural Press (October 2012)
  • The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell/The New Press (October 2012)
  • Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mary Jo Bang/Graywolf Press (August 2012)
  • Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf/Ecco (September 2012)
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles/Penguin
  • Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Julianne Garey/Soho (December 2012)
  • The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Harper (July 2012)

Which will I be reading first? It’s almost as though I’m afraid to break the spell, as though if I choose one, the rest will disappear. That said, I think I’ll start with the slimmest volume, Beside the Sea. Lori and Tara actually told me about the book, saying: “It’s about a mother who is planning to kill her children.” Pleasant, right? Except that my Master’s thesis was about women who kill their children throughout literature. Specifically, the title is The Dialectic of Maternity: From Medea to the Moderns. Snazzy, huh? Ok, so it sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s interesting how many many time this sort of story repeats itself in literature (and in life). So that will be my first pick.

And for those of you who weren’t able to make it, I have a BEA bag just for you. In the Random House tote bag are the BEA edition of The New York Review of Books, Anne Lamott’s newest, Some Assembly Required, in audio, Next to Love by Ellen Feldman (this one is so good!), and A Fatal Debt by John Gapper. Something for everyone! The only rules are you cannot have attended BEA, and you must leave me a comment. Which book would you most love to get your hands on? Is there any particular publisher you’re interested in? Do you think I’ve got 15 winners in these stacks? Make sure you comment by next Tuesday, July 3, at midnight!

UPDATE: Rachel won the BEA bag o’ goodies. Congrats!

Blue Monday by Nicci French

5th March 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Pamela Dorman Books/Viking in exchange for an honest review.

Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist, walks the streets of London at night. It’s not her patients or their stories she’s trying to escape, however. She just can’t sleep and finds the quiet of the city at night comforting before facing the day. When her former mentor becomes unreliable, she takes one of his patients, Alan Dekker. Alan can’t have children but has vivid dreams of a child, a redheaded boy who calls him Daddy and plays on the playground. When Frieda sees the news and discovers a redheaded boy has disappeared, she wonders. Could Alan be the culprit? He remembers feeling the same way 20 years earlier, when a young girl was abducted near a candy store. Are Alan’s latent desires expressing themselves in horrific ways? Frieda, unsure of her duty, goes to the police, and embarks on a fraught-filled journey to discover the depths and limitations of the mind.

The husband-wife writing duo Nicci French have written several novels together, but Blue Monday is the first in a series (in which each book will be named after a day of the week) following Frieda Klein. Frieda is complicated. She isn’t close to her family and has few friends, practically none outside her work. She lives alone in a dark flat, and her life is quiet and ordered. Her mentor is struggling, and Frieda’s confidence in him is tempered by her need to get him back on his feet and in the clinic, a need that seems to be personal as much as it is practical. She is unsure how to proceed when she suspects her patient of wrongdoing, and instead of forging boldly ahead, she seeks counsel, even though it’s from her flawed and troubled mentor.

As for the central mystery, once the main twist is revealed, I found it relatively easy to reconstruct the rest. However, after a discussion on Twitter, I think it may be my excessive mystery reading that’s to blame. 😉 In fact, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. There is a good bit of exposition, but in the first installment of a series, that’s hardly unexpected, and I liked that French doesn’t reveal the details of Frieda’s past life. The ending, though I had anticipated it, was still incredibly chilling and left me with an eerie feeling.

If you’re typically wary of reading books with possible violence to children or with abductions, Blue Monday focused much more on the mind of a kidnapper as opposed to graphic or unnecessary scenes with either child. The aftermath of an abduction on families is difficult to experience, but it also illustrates how differently those faced with such horror react.

Initially, I was concerned that the novel may feel unstable, as I could not recall having read a novel with two writers. The publisher kindly included a Q&A with the pair, and they said, “It’s a question of moving between the two of us. We never decide in advance who’s going to write what chapter, there’s no division….If Sean writes something and I change absolutely nothing about that whole section, but I read it and approve it, then it becomes mine as well. It becomes a kind of Nicci French thing so we both own each word of it.” Interesting. And it worked.

Interested in Blue Monday? Leave me a comment and your email address, and I’ll draw a winner by Friday at midnight.

Blue Monday is out today. Buy your copy from Indiebound or on your Nook.

UPDATE: Giveaway closed. Congrats to Brian Brady for winning a copy of this book!