Tuesday, April 30, 2013

~ ~ Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson ~ ~

Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson

Publisher:  Bourbon Street Books
Date:  April 2013
ISBN:  978-0062195432
Pages:  432
Rating:    4.0 out of 5 

Book Summary:    Summer 1936. Mystery writer Josephine Tey joins her friends in the resort village of Portmeirion, Wales, to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, as fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing—and no one—is quite what it seems, Chief Inspector Archie Penrose becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the way the investigation is ultimately resolved. Several years later, another horrific murder, again linked to a Hitchcock movie, drives Penrose back to the scene of the original crime to uncover the shocking truth. 

My Thoughts:   The title, Fear in the Sunlight, is a reference to a quote by Alfred Hitchcock, a central character in this book.  Hitchcock, writer, director and creator, was always curious about people’s behavior and reactions.  In this novel, Nicola Upson focused on a comment by Hitchcock referring to the fear people experienced in specific conditions.  Hitchcock believed “Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight…where it is so unexpected – that is interesting.”  Hitchcock sets up the conditions to test his notion while dismissive and uncaring about the troubling effects his “experiment” could have on his ‘subjects’.  Upson appears to have thoroughly researched Alfred Hitchcock and his relationship with his wife for this book to our advantage and enjoyment.  Hitchcock is quite an eccentric and complex character according to Upson’s description.  He has a vulgar sense of humor and a penchant for practical jokes and experimentation involving his crew and the actors and actresses in his movies.  

 His wife, Alma, understands him very well and his assistant director, David Franks seems to, as well, but few others do.  Alma serves partly to explain Hitchcock to people he upsets as well as to smooth the feathers he ruffles. Hitchcock has the capacity to annoy and upset many people, as he does in this story.  Josephine Tey, an author of mysteries, is one of the characters Hitchcock has a big impact on in this book.  She’s turning 40 and, although loathe to be the center of attention, decides to spend the weekend with a group of close friends in the idyllic spot of Portmeirion, Wales where Hitchcock is nterested in basing his next movie on her most recent book.  He’s come with Alma to Portmeirion for the weekend to woo Josephine. 

Josephine is suspicious of Hitchcock and unsure if she wants to grant him permission to her book. She’s well aware that the movie he makes based on her book won’t resemble the mystery she wrote.   This intrigues her because it will keep the spotlight off but she has greater fear that his cinematic product will be far better than her written one.  For a woman who exudes confidence, Josephine is very unsure of herself in most situations and prefers to stand back and observe life rather than join in. But when Alma approaches Josephine to broach the topic of her book and begin negotiations, Josephine is intrigued by the conversation and begins feeling more positive about the prospect of seeing her book on film.

I expected Josephine to be the main character in the story. Although she is one of a few central characters, this book is more about Hitchcock and his personality and character, his films and his impact on the people with which he surrounds himself.  Hitchcock invited a large contingent of actors and actresses and crew members to Portmeirion for the weekend as they’re all working on his next movie. He wants to see how they react to “fear in the sunlight”.  When his prank goes awry and ends abruptly because of two murders and a possible suicide, the idyllic Portmeirion feels like a sinister, foreboding place in the sunlight.  But this wasn’t the way Hitchcock wanted to see how people reacted to “fear in the sunlight”.  Even the murders are over-shadowed somewhat by Hitchcock and his plan to experiment when it’s leaked by his assistant director.  The number of people at Portmeirion for the weekend and the confusion as to where everyone was at the time of the murders makes it nearly impossible for the police to solve the crimes.   

We eventually learn these are only a few of many murders that have been committed over the years.   In the book’s first and last section, Chief Inspector Archie Penrose, incidentally, a long-time friend of Josephine Tey, unravels the complex and confusing  string of murders that have been going on for years reveals who committed the murders and theorizes why.  The connection to Alfred Hitchcock and the guests at Portmeirion that one weekend is tangentental although there is a bit of a connection to Hitchcock’s films.    As I was reading the book, it all seemed to make sense and work but as I write this review, I’ve realized there was a lot going on in this book and it doesn’t always coalesce.   Upson is a terrific writer, creates interesting characters and uses subtle humor and fascinating observations that made this a terrific book. 

Fear in the Sunlight is the fourth book in Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey mysteries.  I’ve always meant to read the first in the series, An Expert in Murder, and the others but before I had the opportunity to do so, Fear in the Sunlight was offered to me to review from my favorite TLC Book Tours.  I couldn’t say no and I’m glad I didn’t.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  This despite the fact it’s not quite clear what the author wanted to say, unless it’s meant to be a mini-bio/tribute/study of Hitchcock.  I wish the book hadn’t been so “busy” as it was sometimes a bit overwhelming if not hard to follow.  This is perhaps why I wish I’d read this series from the beginning even though Upson does a terrific job making the reader feel as if they haven’t missed out on anything important if they haven’t read the other books in the series. 

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Bourbon Street Books for the opportunity to read and review Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

~ Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline ~

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Publisher:  William Morrow Paperbacks
Date:  April 2, 2013
ISBN:   978-0061950728
Pages:  304
Rating:  4.0 out of 5 

Book Summary:   Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?
As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past.

Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer knows that a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall. But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they appear. A Penobscot Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past.

Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship.

My Thoughts:  I have never heard of orphan trains and have no recollection of learning about them when studying early 20th century American history.  This seems so strange to me, as well as sad, considering these were neglected, abandoned children, lonely and alone, in our country.  I just can't imagine being an innocent 10-year old little girl, such as Niamh (pronounced Neev), who is suddenly all alone in a big city like New York, her parents and siblings gone from her life for in an instant  It sounds frightening to me, an adult who lives in the city, and it's simply a heart-breaking story.
Niamh is the main character in Orphan Train.  Christina Baker Kline does a wonderful job portraying the physical and emotional hardships experienced by the children who are a part of the orphan train group.  They are deeply connected to one another despite not knowing each other well.  Kline makes it clear through Niamh and the other characters how different the prevailing attitudes were towards homeless, abandoned and orphaned children in the early 20th century in contrast to today.  Niamh and thw other children feel ashamed and humiliated.  They're expected to appreciate anyone who gives them a home and any home they get despite the conditions or the treatment. Niamh's journey from the day she steps on the bus to the day she's married is sad, poignant, heart-warming and fascinating.  It's also similar to the situations many of the other children encounter, although they all have their differences.
This book is well worth reading for the period of American history it details.  Kline has written an absorbing account of one little girl's remarkable life.  I'd hoped to learn more about the modern day 'orphan', Molly, who helped Niamh recount her remarkable life.  If we're lucky, maybe Kline will  revisit Molly in another novel.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for the opportunity to read and review Orphan Train.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

~ ~ Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon ~ ~

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon 

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Date: February 12, 2013
ISBN: 978-0345527967
Pages: 416
Rating:  4.5 out of 5  

Book Summary:   Alice has been married to her husband, William, for twenty years.  Though she can still remember the first time they met like it was yesterday, these days she finds herself posting things on Facebook that she used to confide to him. So when she’s invited to participate in an anonymous online survey on marriage and love, she finds that all her longings come pouring out as she dutifully answers questions under the name “Wife 22.” 

Evaluating her responses is “Researcher 101,” who seems to listen to her in a way that William hasn’t in a very long time, and before she knows it, she finds herself trying hard not to e-flirt with him. Meanwhile, her elderly father is chatting on Facebook, her fifteen-year-old daughter is tweeting, and everything in her life is turning upside down. 

Wife 22 is a hilariously funny, profoundly moving, and deeply perceptive novel about the ways we live and love in this technological age, from a dazzling new voice in fiction. 

My Thoughts:   I adored the main character, Alice.  She’s sweet, funny, kind and a little nutty.  She’s also going through a difficult time right now.  Her 20th wedding anniversary is coming up.  Recently, she’s been especially troubled by a growing distance between she and William. They no longer confide in each other, let alone talk about anything deep or personal.  Alice has been busy raising their children, tending the house, being a good mother and a good wife for most of their marriage.  Suddenly, Alice realizes she's been feeling lost, alone, and even a little angry for quite a while.  It doesn’t help she’s about to turn 45, the age her mother was when she died, making Alice even more anxious than usual. What’s more, she has a host of fears and worries about her teenage daughter, Zoe and her 11-year old son, Peter.  Alice worries she’s lost touch completely with Zoe and worries, among other things, this will happen with Peter.  

 Alice is an extremely likeable character who she can also be infuriating.  She’s not without her faults: she spends more time checking Facebook than talking to her children and William.  She runs away from the problems and people she doesn’t want to face and can’t cope with.  She gets carried away with perceived fears she convinces herself are real and is often cold and unsupportive of William.  Alice’s flaws make her real and human.  What Melanie Gideon has done, superbly, is create a character that is easy to relate to and to understand.  I felt this way even when I didn’t agree with Alice’s behavior.  What makes this so amazing is that everyone one of us knows at least one person like Alice.  One doesn’t often find such a fleshed out character in fiction, where stories are often populated by people of extremes. 

Many women will surely see some of themselves in Alice, as well.  Alice’s fears and worries are ones many mother’s share sometimes, if not always.  Because of her inability to confront her fears and deal with her problems, there were times I wanted to throttle Alice.  She escapes into her computer, furthering her disconnection with her children.  And yet these same infuriating dysfunctions make Alice relatable and evoke sympathy, if not empathy.  Ironically, her failure to connect with her family underscores the importance of connecting.  As long as she remains disconnected from those around her, nothing in her life works.  Her disconnection from herself is what ultimately keeps her from realizing this basic truth.  There were plenty of times when I wished I could confront her just to say, “What are you thinking?” or “Stop that!” much as her best friend, Nedra does many times.  Not surprisingly, Alice doesn’t appreciate Nedra’s input.  

Wife 22 is an intelligent and clever book filled with funny, laugh-out-loud and poignant scenes, as well as sad passages, heated moments and great dialogue.  Melanie Gideon understands how disconnected couples, family members and friends can become as time rushes by and days turn into weeks which turn into months and then the years fly by.  Gideon also displays an amazing understanding of people and their instinctual behavior whether they're 12 or 40, male or female as shown through a fascinating cast of characters. Peter, Alice's son, for example, is great character. He is sweet, funny, silly and a little quirky. Clearly he is his mother’s son and as such, loves and understands his mom very well.   Zoe, on the other hand seems very true to life as she's instantly recognizable by any parent of a teenager: a girl who needs her privacy and is almost perpetually crabby.  They, like many of the other characters creatted by Gideon round out this book and make the terrific reading experience it is.

 I read this book last month thanks to Andrea at Great Thoughts and meant to review it much sooner, following a great Twitter book club meeting attended by Melanie Gideon, who added some great thoughts and ideas to our discussion.  But, as tends to happen, life got in the way and illness and health problems have prevented me from blogging regularly (but not from reading, haha!).  Something I suspect Alice would understand or, at least, sympathize with my inability to get on-line!  But Wife 22 stayed with me all this time.  I found it easy to recall the story and Alice, her family and friends because the story is so relatable and current.  I highly recommend this book to all anyone who enjoys great books about real characters and, especially women whether you're a mother, daughter, friend or all three.  Oh, and when you read this book, I expect you'll never think of a Hostess snack cake quite the same way ever again!    

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

~ ~ The New Republic by Lionel Shriver ~ ~

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Publisher:  Harper Perennial
Date:   April 2, 2013 (Reprint edition)
ISBN:  978-0062103321
Pages:  416
Rating:   3.5 out of 5 

Book Summary:    Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. When he leaves his lucrative law career for a foreign correspondent post in a Portuguese backwater with a homegrown terrorist movement, Edgar recognizes Barrington Saddler, the disappeared reporter he’s replacing, as the larger-than-life character he longs to emulate. Yet all is not as it appears. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba—”The Daring Soldiers of Barba” —have been blowing up the rest of the world for years in order to win independence for a province so dismal and backward that you couldn’t give the rathole away. So why, with Barrington vanished, do incidents claimed by the “SOB” suddenly dry up? A droll, playful novel, The New Republic addresses terrorism with a deft, tongue-in-cheek touch while also pressing a more intimate question: What makes particular people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug?

My Thoughts:  Lionel Shriver has been on my list of authors who I’ve wanted to read for far too long.  So, as is often the case, when TLC Book Tours provided me the opportunity to review Shriver’s most recent novel, The New Republic, I happily signed up.  I didn’t enjoy The New Republic but I thought it was an interesting and well-written book. It’s about a few things: journalists and the lengths they’ll go to for a front-page story; terrorism and how it pervades every continent and country; politics and the means some activist groups use to make themselves heard; how people – especially journalists – fill the time while waiting for something to happen but mostly, this book is about the main character, Edgar Kellogg. 

The protagonist, Edgar Kellogg, is 37 years old and recently quit his lucrative career as a corporate lawyer to be a journalist.  He isn’t a very likable character, tending to be snide, arrogant and cynical as well as insecure. He wasn’t popular as a corporate lawyer (who is?) and he’s decided to pursue a career in journalism.  He believes it’ll get him a lot of love especially since Toby Falconer, the BMOC from high school, whom Edgar adored and was obsessed with, is a journalist. Edgar hasn’t spoken to Toby for 20 years but he’s followed Toby’s byline in the paper. He has no qualms about calling Toby for a connection at his paper, the “National Record” because Edgar’s that self-absorbed.  He’s sure Toby has amassed friends in every port from traveling around the world writing articles. That’s what Edgar has always wanted most: popularity.  He’s only managed, so far, to be the follower.  The adorer and not the adored.  Part of Edgar’s problem is he gets bored easily and doesn’t like most people, but he’s convinced being a journalist will give him the life he wants. 

Edgar’s dreams of a glamorous life as a journalist are shattered before he even gets on the plane.  His interview with the “National Record” and his subsequent drink with Toby make it clear there’s not much glamour in journalism. Guy Wallasek, editor of the “National Record”, calls journalists “parasites” and “histories secretaries”.  He also warns Edgar that journalists don’t have an opinion of their own - they simply report what happens, and more often than not it’s something depressing or outright morbid. Most of the time, journalists are just waiting around, “chewing at the bit” for a story to write. Shriver shares this in the second chapter, shortly after two quotes that open the book, one from Conrad Black, the other from George Orwell, that criticize journalists.  As the book continues, we meet plenty of journalists and nothing they say or do puts them in a good light.  One thing’s for certain: there’s nothing glamorous about where Edgar’s been assigned by the “National Record”.  Barba, the very bottom of Portugal, is excessively windy, boring and covered with prickly pears.  But the journalists camped out there are happy to remain so long as the SOB continue to explode bombs around the world, giving them fodder.  Maybe this is why Shriver doesn’t like journalists.  In The New Republic, their moral center, if it exists at all, is badly skewed. 

When Edgar arrives on Barba and hears more about the missing Barrington Saddler, try as he might, Edgar cannot ignore all the talk.  He’s intrigued but also jealous. After all, Saddler is larger than life, adored by one and all. Edgar has basically assumed Barrington’s life. He lives in Barrington’s very large and ostentatious house, eating and drinking his gourmet sundries, driving Barrington’s SUV and even wearing some of his luxurious clothes. It was easy to see where this story was going, at least part of it. Despite himself, Edgar is smitten with Barrington (a man he’s never met) and emulates him.  Soon, Edgar conjures up a Barrington apparition to keep him company at night and to discuss the SOB terrorists and related topics. Living in Barrington’s home, using his computer and extensive notes on the SOB and Barba’s history, Edgar discovers a frightening and glorious secret.  To divulge anymore would be to spoil the book.  Once I was over the shock I found the rest The New Republic inconsistent. 

Shriver makes it abundantly clear she thinks little of journalists.  She succeeds in making them appear to be a pack of hungry, groveling dogs willing to do just about anything to get their byline in the paper.  This includes manufacturing witnesses to interview and hoping and praying for terrorists to set off a bomb somewhere, anywhere.  But with Edgar and Barrington the story delves into fantasy when Shriver  goes too far to prove her point.  While skewing journalists, Shriver also slams the notion of “boys will be boys” using terrorist bombings as a game of sorts making people’s fears seem inconsequential.  Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think terrorism and bombings are humorous or a topic for satire, not to this degree anyway. The ending is extremely unsatisfying, almost aggravating, in this light.  Some may find it amusing but, ultimately I thought there should have been consequences for Edgar as well as Barrington’s behavior.  But, if the ending is more realistic than I could imagine, meaning Shriver knows a lot more than I can even fathom, it makes the ending something to inspire outrage.  If this is the case, no wonder Shriver skewers journalists.  I think The New Republic is worth reading to decide for yourself what you think about Shriver’s themes and ideas.  And, although I didn’t like this book, it’s made me even more interested in reading Lionel Shriver’s other novels. 

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Harper Perennial for the opportunity to read and review The New Republic.