Tag Archives: Summer Reading

Review: Whispers Through a Megaphone by Rachael Elliott

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.

My Review:
MegaphoneThe two main characters in this book have allowed other people to influence their lives to the point of misery.  When their stories finally intersect, they serve as a comfort for each other and form a kind of unconditional friendship that both of them have desperately needed.  Miriam hasn’t left her house in three years because of a traumatic incident for which she wrongly blames herself.  As we get to know Miriam we learn that her mental health issues have stemmed from a lifetime of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her mother.

It is very difficult to read about Miriam’s story and I usually avoid books that describe child or animal abuse because it is just too upsetting.  But Miriam’s resilient spirit and her drive to put the past behind her is uplifting.  She is told when she is a very young child that her father died when she was an infant and the only other family member that she has any contact with is her maternal grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother has not allowed her to see her grandmother and so her only source of comfort are letters from her grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother is so cruel and jealous that she puts a stop to the letters which causes Miriam additional mental anguish.  The cruelest punishment that is imposed on Miriam is that she is never allowed to talk above a whisper because her mother can’t stand any noise.  The punishment for speaking above a whisper in her mother’s presence is nothing short of torture.  As an adult Miriam continues to speak at a whisper and cannot break this abusive habit forced on her by her mother.

Ralph is also unhappy when we first meet him, but the source of his anxiety is his bizarre, demanding and overpowering wife.  Ralph and Sadie met while in college and if she didn’t become pregnant with twins then the relationship would never have lasted.  Sadie is bitter that she is forced to give up on her degree and the budding relationship with her roommate Allie.  Sadie’s questioning of her sexuality and her unhappiness in something that has always stood in the way of Ralph and Sadie’s marriage.  When Ralph accidentally uncovers this astounding secret, he flees his house and decides to live alone in the woods.  It is in this woods that Miriam comes upon him during what is her first day out of her house in three years.

I have to admit that I was reading their separate stories at the beginning of the book, I wasn’t convinced that these two people with such separate lives would meet in a way that was believable.  But Elliott masterfully weaves together the story so that Ralph and Miriam encounter each other under just the right circumstances.  They are both kindhearted people and their sincere compassion allows them to give each other honest and frank opinions.  Miriam slowly comes back to the world of the living and gains the courage to get a job and even go on a date.  Ralph finally decides to go home and face his teenage sons and the wreck of his marriage.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is an uplifting book that shows us it’s never too late in life to form a friendship that is meaningful and gratifying.  Great characters, an interesting plot and clever writing all make for a successful first book from Elliott.

About the Author:
R ElliottRachel Elliott is a writer and psychotherapist. She has worked in arts and technology journalism and her writing has featured in a variety of publications, from digital arts magazines to the French Literary Review. She has also been shortlisted for a number of short story and novel competitions in the UK and the US. Rachel was born in Suffolk, and now lives in Bath. Whispers Through a Megaphone is her first novel. It was longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For more information about the book and to hear Rachel read an excerpt visit the Pushkin Press website:  http://pushkinpress.com/rachel-elliott-reads-from-whispers-through-a-megaphone/

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Filed under British Literature, Pushkin Press, Summer Reading

Review: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Scribner via Netgalley.

My Review:
Sheep and GoatsThis was the perfect book for me to take on my recent beach vacation to Maine.  The story is set in England during a sweltering heat wave in the summer of 1976.  This neighborhood in the English Midlands is so tight knit that when Mrs. Creasy goes missing, every one notices, even ten-year-old friends Tilly and Grace.  Since Tilly and Grace are on summer vacation, they decide to use their time to look for clues around The Avenue in order to find out what happened to Mrs. Creasy.  The first person they seek out for advice is the local pastor.

The pastor tries to reassure Tilly and Gracie who are worried about Mrs. Creasy.  The girls don’t want anyone else in their neighborhood to disappear so they look to the pastor for comfort and he tells them that God is everywhere and will protect them.  So in addition to finding Mrs. Creasy, the girls also set out to find where God is hiding himself on The Avenue.  As they visit each house, we are given a glimpse into the quirky and oddball characters that inhabit The Avenue.  Joanna Cannon has written a book that is chock full of likeable and sympathetic characters in whose lives we become emotionally invested.

Some might be hesitant to read a story from a child’s perspective, but the characters of Grace and Tilly are charming and funny.  The girls have some of the most droll and amusing lines in the book.  It is Grace who aptly describes the oppressive heat of the summer: “We had to share bathwater and half-fill the kettle, and we were only allowed to flush the toilet after what Mrs. Morton described as a special occasion.  The only problem was, it meant that everyone knew when you’d had a special occasion, which was a bit awkward.”

As the girls visit their neighbors on The Avenue we are introduced to an engaging cast of characters.  Mr. Creasy is plagued with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and is consumed with counting things.  His wife, Mrs. Creasy, was the only person who could keep his anxiety at bay and now that she is gone his neurosis is back in full force.  Mrs. Forbes is a nervous wreck most of the time as well and her tendency to forget things forces her to constantly make to-do lists.  Mr. Lamb is a widower whose pride and joy is his lush garden.  These are just a few of the interesting characters that we meet on The Avenue.

As much as I enjoyed the characters and the clever writing style of the book, the author’s greatest strength is her ability to create meaningful and compelling relationships between the characters.  Grace and Tilly are best friends and it is touching how Grace is worried for Tilly because of her fragile health.  Grace and Tilly have a touching relationship with Mrs. Morton, a widow who lives alone on The Avenue.  Mrs. Morton takes care of the girls while their parents are having a rest and they feel just as comfortable in her home as in their own.  Grace tells us, “My mother spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down, and so I was minded by Mrs. Morton quite a lot.”  And  Mrs. Creasy, who has a gift for listening and compassion, has a special relationship with many of her neighbors on The Avenue.  We understand throughout the course of the book why everyone is so eager to have this kind woman back in their lives.

The title cleverly points out an important lesson that Tilly, Grace and the rest of The Avenue learn through the mystery of Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance.  All of the neighbors are whispering about some secret that they have been keeping for quite a few years.  They suspect that Mrs. Creasy must have discovered this secret and fled The Avenue. The guilt and the shame of whatever it is that they have done starts to weigh on the neighbors and they start to point fingers at one another.  Tilly and Gracie attend church one Sunday and are fascinated when the pastor reads Matthew 25:31-46:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

What Grace and Tilly, and really the rest of The Avenue can’t figure out, is how do we tell who is a sheep and who is a goat?  The entire Avenue has decided that their eccentric neighbor Walter Bishop is a goat and as a result they been excluded him from their community.  When I was reading the sections about Walter and his mistreatment at the hands of his neighbors I kept thinking of the famous character of Boo Ridley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Walter Bishop lives alone, is very shy and quiet and has some interesting hobbies like photography.  But The Avenue sees him as a threat to their peaceful cul-de-sac and blame him when anything goes wrong.  But Gracie and Tilly are on a mission and they even visit Walter on their quest to find God and Mrs. Creasy.  These little girls give their neighbor the respect and kindness that no one else will show him and in the process they also learn that it is not always easy to separate the goats from the sheep.

This story was funny, charming and engaging.  I was surprised to find out that this is Joanna Cannon’s first novel because she has the talent of a mature and experienced author.  This has been one of my favorite reads so far this summer.

For more information about Joanna Cannon visit her website: https://joannacannon.com/

 

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction, Summer Reading

Review: This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher through Netgalley.

My Review:
This Too Shall PassThe blurb that describes this book on sites like Goodreads and Amazon really sells the book short.  One gets the impression that this is a light, summer beach read,  a book categorized as “chick-lit.”  This particular classification of genre, “chick-lit” has always made me uncomfortable.  It seems to imply, at least in my mind, that females read these lighter, less serious books, ones meant for the beach or for times when ones attention is not fully given because the children are running around.  This genre also seems to imply a certain amount of gratuitous sex.  But Blanca’s story about the death of her mother and her very complicated love life are much more complex than to be classified as “chick-lit.”

The entire book is written as a letter from the main character, Blanca, to her mother who has just passed away.  Blanca is forty years-old, twice divorced and has one son with each ex-husband.  The death of her mother has caused her to not only feel grief, but also to experience a deep sense of loneliness.  Even though Blanca is constantly surrounded by loved ones, her children, her friends, her ex-husbands, a sense of loneliness pervades every scene in the book.  We get the feeling that her relationship with her mother, right up to her dying days,  was very complicated.

Blanca decides to leave Barcelona for a summer seaside vacation to Cadaqués where her mother’s home is.  Even though she is consumed by sadness, the memories of childhood summers in Cadaqués and being surrounded by her mother’s things are a comfort to Blanca.  When she arrives at her mother’s house, the first item she encounters is a jacket that her mother always wore.  She is not sure what she should do with it, but by the end of the novel she brings it to the dry cleaners which act is symbolic of finally letting go of her grief.

Another theme that pervades the book is intimacy, both sexual and emotional. After her mother’s death,  Blanca craves physical affection and begins having sex with Oscar, one of her ex-husbands.  But she recognizes that this is a temporary situation to ease her sorrow.  Blanca is also having an illicit affair with a married man who also shows up in Cadaqués.  Her mother’s death makes her reevaluate all of the intimate relationships in her life and Blanca comes to the realization that this affair is not satisfying her emotional needs.  One of the best parts of the book is when she blurts out to the man with whom she is having the affair that they should break it off.  I saw this as Blanca finally coming out of her fog of grief, asserting her independence, and recognizing her self-worth.

In sum, this book brings up important issues about grief and how we deal with the loss of an important role-model in our lives.  Blanca comes to understand that her friends and her family are her true support system and these relationships will help her get over the loss of her mother.  As the plot of the book progressed, I became more invested not only in Blanca’s story, but also in the other lively characters in the book.  Her two best friends, her sons, and her ex-husbands, all of whom have very different personalities, made up a very amusing cast of characters.  I would recommend taking this book to the beach, but you will need to give it your undivided attention to fully appreciate the deeper messages about dealing with loss.

About the Author:
M BusquetsMilena Busquets was born in Barcelona in 1972. She attended the Lycée Français de Barcelone and obtained a degree in Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology in University College London. She worked for many years at Editorial Lumen, the publishing house that her family had set up in the early 1960s and that was sold to Random House forty years later. She later founded her own publishing house, wrote a first novel, worked for a gossip magazine and in PR for a fashion brand and currently works as a journalist and as a translator.

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Filed under Summer Reading

Review: Thank You, Goodnight by Andy Abramowitz

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Touchstone through NetGalley.

My Review:
Thank You, GoodnightTeddy Tremble is a lawyer at a Philadelphia law firm and when we meet him we get the impression that he is vaguely dissatisfied with his life.  He is on his way to Ireland to take a deposition for his law firm and he doesn’t seem interested in anything that his going on around him.  He makes a few phone calls back home to his long-time girlfriend and he also seems indifferent towards her.

We find out that being a lawyer was not Teddy’s first career choice and he and his band “Tremble” had a rather successful stint in the nineties as a rock band.  When their second album was judged a complete flop by the critics the band broke up and all of its members went separate ways.  Through a series of hilarious circumstances, Teddy suddenly has the itch to make music again and revive the band.  But convincing the other members, who all have very different lives and careers now, won’t be an easy task.

Teddy sets out on a series of road trips to convince each former band mate to make another go at a new album.  The first band member we meet is Jumbo, a guitar player and the hot mess of the group, who lives in his ex-wife’s basement and has an odd “career” as a midwife.  Jumbo is on board right away with Teddy’s scheme but when Teddy reconnects with his loveable but irresponsible friend again Teddy begins to wonder if he has made a terrible mistake by reviving the band.

The other two members of the group, Warren the drummer, and Mackenzie the bass player, are much harder to convince to drop their lives and rejoin a band whose last hit was more than a decade ago.  Warren is a music teacher at a high school and he has a wife and young son; he has no desire to drop a successful career and spend long hours away from his family in order to fulfill what he thinks is Teddy’s midlife crisis.  And Mackenzie, with whom Teddy had a fling that ended Teddy’s marriage, is now a sex therapist and Teddy isn’t sure that she will even speak to him.  We are left in suspense for a good part of the book wondering if Teddy will triumphantly pull together his band mates for one last musical hurrah.

The strength of this book lies in Abramowitz’s ability to write witty and humorous dialogue and sustain it for the three-hundred plus pages of the book. Teddy is crabby and sarcastic and looks at the world through a negative, yet hilarious lens.  It is difficult for an author to sustain such comical quips throughout the writing of an entire book but this author does it with aplomb.

I also have to add that this book is a great read for anyone who appreciates music and wants a trip down a musical memory lane.  It is obvious that Abramowitz plays, writes and listens to a wide range of music; his references to Geddy Lee, the legendary bassist from Rush, and quotations from Rush’s hit “Limelight” sold me on his in depth knowledge of music.  It would be interesting for the author to make a playlist available on his website of all the great songs and artists that are mentioned in the book.

Last summer one of my favorite books was I am Having So Much Fun Here Without You which was also published by Touchstone.  It looks like they continue their streak of excellent summer reads with THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT.

About The Author:
AbramowitzAndy Abramowitz lives in Center City Philadelphia with is wife and two daughters. He practices law by day and various artistic endeavors by night. Thank You, Goodnight Night, his first novel, is the product of frequent bouts of insomnia.

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Filed under Humor, Summer Reading

Review and Author Q&A: Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof

I am very excited about the book I am reviewing today, Small Blessings.  It really is a fantastic novel and I highly recommend you pick up a copy when it comes out on 8/12.  Read my full review and scroll down for a Q&A with the talented and gracious author, Martha Woodroof.

My Review:

Small BlessingsIf I were to make a list of my favorite books this year SMALL BLESSINGS by Martha Woodroof would be at the top.  This is saying a lot for me because, according to Goodreads, I have read more than 90 books so far this year.

Tom has been muddling his way through life, without thinking and without feeling, just trying to get through one day at a time.  He, along with his mother-in-law Agnes, is trying to take care of his mentally unstable wife.  Marjory, who is paranoid and incapable of going outside of the house on her own, has been Tom’s responsibility for the past twenty years.

One day an encounter with a cheerful and optimistic new employee at the local college bookstore changes all of their lives.  During the same week, Tom receives a letter from a past lover saying that he is the father of a 10 year-old boy named Henry who is being sent to live with him.  How can this much change possibly happen to a person who was leading such a quiet and unassuming life?

This book is rich with well-rounded characters with whom you cannot help but admire.  Although Tom is clearly caught in a loveless marriage, he has made the ultimate sacrifice by never abandoning his wife.  Marjory’s mother Ages, who became a widow and a single mother at a very young age, has a resilience that many of us would envy.  Henry is a 10 year-old boy that is sweet and kind and flourishes in a home where he is loved and wanted.  Even the lesser characters, such as Russell and Iris who are also on the university faculty, have their own problems and struggles that enrich the storyline.

Sometimes a book begins slowly but has a strong ending.  Sometimes a book beings strongly but the ending is weak.  Sometimes a book has both a strong beginning and ending but the middle lags.  That is absolutely not the case with SMALL BLESSINGS.  There are twists and turns and unexpected surprises that one encounters throughout all of the wonderfully written prose.   I loved every single page of this book, which is a very rare thing to say.  Martha Woodroof has written a book that everyone needs to include SMALL BLESSINGS on their must read list.

*Thanks so much to NetGalley and the publisher for giving me an advanced copy of this book.

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Author Q&A:

1. I really enjoy books with university/academic settings.  Did you have a particular experience at a university that made you use this setting?

My mother taught English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and used to regale me  with stories of departmental meetings. As an adult, I’ve managed to live mostly in college towns, and I enjoy hanging out on campus  and people-watching. To me, the campus of a small college functions as a societal bell jar in that it’s a closed community where people can’t escape each other’s company. Setting a novel on such a campus was the ideal way for me to examine all sorts of human relationships, from the petty and adversarial, to the loyal and loving.

About the bookstore in Small Blessings: My own  life is pretty much divided into the years before and after I got sober. My first real job in sobriety was at the Sweet Briar College Book Shop, working for the wondrous Roscoe (Skipper) Fitts, who was, to quote a late member of the English Department, “a real book man.” My job was Rose’s job; I ran the Espresso machine and did event programming.  It was while working there that I developed a  wish to write about a college whose heart beat in its bookstore.

2. Tom’s wife seems to have symptoms that would suggest she is on the autism spectrum.  Did you have a particular diagnosis in mind for her?

I did not, other than that she is irreparably damaged.  And I wanted explore what happens in a relationship between two loyal, well-meaning people that can  never, ever be a happy one.

3. Your first attempt, in my opinion, at novel writing is nothing short of amazing. What was the most exciting part in the entire process of having your first novel published?

Why thank-you so much, Melissa. Really, really, really!

The most exciting part is really that it’s happening.  Period. I’m old enough and have done enough National Public Radio stories on publishing to be terribly, terribly grateful to my agent Kate Garrick and my editor at St. Martins, Hilary Teeman, for taking me on. And I’m completely  tickled that they did. My only plan right now is to enjoy the adventure. I feel as though I’m up on a surfboard, riding a gigantic and exhilarating wave.

4. What is the best book, fiction or non-fiction that you have read so far this year?

I think in terms of can’t-put-it-down, cracking good story, probably The Son by Philipp Meyer. The characters in it are still with me, and I finished it a month ago.
5. Since Small Blessings has been such a success, do you have any plans for writing another novel? 

First draft is done. Second draft is being cranky, but I’ll get there.

 

About The Author:

Martha WoodroofMARTHA WOODROOF was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.

 

Special thanks to Martha for being so kind and answering my questions.

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Filed under Author Interviews, Literature/Fiction, Summer Reading