Review: “The Returned”

 Review by L.Nolan, IBCafe.net

“The Returned”

by Jason Mott

ISBN-13: 978-0-7783-1533-9Copyright 2013 by Jason Mott

Publisher: Harlequin  MIRA

$24.95 US, $27.95 CAN. 352pp.

Nothing is more satisfying than reading a spellbinding book from a new author who knows how to apply all the necessary ingredients to keep you reading. I have had that satisfying experience this weekend.

Author, Jason Mott, is a unique story craftsman, and reveals his exceptional talent in his new book, “The Returned.” I started reading it on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m., and never put it down until I finished it the same day, at 8:30 p.m. When I came out of the shock of realizing I was finished with the book, and also discovering that I was not there in the book, I cried. Yes. That is how mesmerized I was in the story.

Here are some technical points about the creative mind of the author I wish to point out. There is definitely a well thought out plot, with multiple subplots that could turn into other books in the future. Secondly, the author skillfully injects a cathartic character (read Author’s Notes and Acknowledgments in the back–I always read those first) endearing the reader to that particular character, which serves to compel the reader to forge through the morass of events and see what happens to, and why   that character is so important to the story: is he a string in the unraveling yarn that will carry us to the conclusion? Or–just a good distraction? Finally, one of its major characters is ejected from the story, but since the story itself is not based on natural phenomena, it is possible to see that character again in future books (I hope!). Based on surreal events in the story, and if I had to characterize the book within a genre, I would have to say it is a toss-up between Magical Realism and Gothic or philosophical Horror.

Most old veteran story-makers know how to pull a yarn, and so it is with this new author who works exceptionally well to weave a tale that appeals to the widest audience possible. Here are a couple examples: in the plot, a focused reader can almost count the complications and will feel drawn to make conclusions that seem natural to make. Remember though, this is not a natural story. At the very beginning, Motthijacks the reader’s expectations by throwing an immediate curveball. This is the main string in the plot that pulls the reader headlong into the story with but does not lead you to, the truth of what the reader expects to find out–which is the Phenomenon that runs through the whole story. If one is curious enough to keep pulling the yarn, one thinks oneself astute enough to know what’s next–again–but it is never what the reader expects. Remember: it is not a natural story, but a terrifying phenomenon–yes: terrifying. I use that word deliberately.

And such a terrifying phenomenon is the thematic yarn that pulls you through the story. The Denoument never really happens regarding the Phenomenon, but instead, the author takes us deeper into the minds and hearts of the characters, which is ingeniously structured to make the reader ponder long after the book is over: what would I have done if this happened to me, to us, today? And: Who do I think would go wrong, right, haywire, or die…Or “return” and would I do what Harold or Lucille did? Or instead, would I be like Fred, or would I have been complacent as Bellamy?

In short, the story gets under your skin, into your mind, and pains your heart, exactly as an extraordinary story should do. I refuse to waste time telling you the plot. You need to read the book yourself, then find others that would debate the ending with you. And the ending IS a debate, I can assure you. I am hoping for a sequel, and fast!

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Review: “Four Souls”

by Louise Erdrich

A Review by Editor, L. Nolan

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(2004). Harper Collins. New York, NY.

ISBN 0-06-620975-7

This book is not your usual crime thriller, hero adventure, erotics, romance; frightful, playful or simple novel. It is about the life of people whose thoughts, ideas, values and beliefs are different than the usual American norm: coming from the perspective of Native Americans, it is about the travailing of the soul (or souls) within us, and within a number of characters, and how they grow through adversity and evolve into a full and well fleshed out character. It isn’t a novel for the reader who wants to just waste time, but a reader who loves to read about the plights and journeys of others who live through their own harrowing experiences, their own cultural conventions, and how they transcend their own human limitation.s.

I love to read Louise Erdrich’s novels, because they always stay with me long after I finish them, and they always make me think more deeply about how people get through various challenges in life.

The title of the book is really a woman’s name: that of Anaquot, “Four Souls” the mother of the protagonist, Fleur Pillager.  The opening chapter reveals immediately something about Fleur, her resoursefulness, her determination, her desperation, and her hope. These innate qualities in her that take her through a rugged and difficult travel east to find the man who took the lands of her family, show her determination. The rest reveals throughout the story.

“She wore her Makizinan to shreds, then stole a pair of boots off the porch of a farmhouse, strangling a fat dog to do it. She skinned the dog, boiled and ate it, leaving only the bones behind, sucked hollow. She dug cattails from the potholes and roasted the sweet root. She ate mud hens and snared muskrats, and still she traveled east.”

The story is about her plight to regain her family’s land, and her desire to carry on her dead mother’s name (and legacy), “Four Souls.” It is sometimes disturbing, but then, this realism psychological or self-identity genre (or bildungroman) can be so, because in life we actually do go through harrowing times, as well as beautiful times, that make us change. We find a number of characters in subplots that have much to do with her plight, as well as their own growth or changes.

I love the genre of realism, and I love Louise Erdrich’s style of writing as well. If you want to read a book that keeps you wondering about the hardships and loves of others, I think you will greatly enjoy this book, and it will stay with you long after you have finished it, as it did with me.

Lydia Nolan, Reviewer

Creator/Founder

International Books Cafe

http://www.write4plot.wordpress.com

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Review: “Solaris” (the novel, not the movie)

By Stanislaw Lem

I have something for you. It’s called Fantastic voyage into fantasy.

We have an IBCafe Book Club, (International Books Cafe) that we Zoom into once a month, so we have been reading “Solaris,” the novel by Stanislaw Lem. And what a ride!

Throughout the novel there are technical space and science [fictional] vocabulary to get through, but if you can keep your mind organized you can probably decipher the meanings.

This novel–one might say–could be juxtaposed, in an allusive comparison to a play by Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” in that it can be construed in various ways depending on the reader, and depending on the reader’s point of view or outlook on life. Those kinds of books are always exciting because they move one to research some of the theories and the vocabulary and make it deeper than the author may have ever intended. As well, it makes for good discussions among many in either a book club or among friends at an alehouse. I might add, I love this movie… but that is beside the point. The point is, the movie makes you think beyond your boundaries of mental capacity.

In general, love is penetrable no matter what space and time one finds oneself, and that is all I will say about this. You must read the novel in order to sense the theme of “…and death shall have no dominion…” (poem by Dylan Thomas.)

After you read it, then see the movie, with George Clooney, Natasha NcElhone, Viola Davis & Jeremy Davies; a great cast.

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Review: “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt

Just finished this book. It was a long and glaring bore for a while. Like many cats in a dark room, one wonders where will be the first strike to determine your and others’ location and initiation of a response or reaction. One way you can tell a book is good is when it sticks in your mind and does not leave so readily and quickly afterward. I keep thinking about the characters and wondering what they could have done differently to make their lives more meaningful besides being bored, agitated, or curious about each others’ mental make-up. I keep thinking what the author should have said or did about such and such and theretofore, having a conversation as it were with the author, but in my head.

If anyone wants to know how wealthy and petulant upper middle class college students behave, this is a great book to read. You will also find out how shallow, how sorrowful, and how screwed up they are in spite of their I.Q.s, or how well supplied lives they have been given with opportunities, and how instantly lost they can get being on their own.

With tons of liquor, drugs, sex, and freedom, the old phrase makes sense: give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves. But as I said, a book is good when you cannot get it out of your head. I feel a certain sympathy for those kids, a certain care for their thoughts and a certain hatred toward their professors who train their minds to respect ancient literary archetypes and myth, but don’t encourage self respect and respect for those currently in their lives. They value very little the life they have and do not have a sense of gratefulness for their station in life, as it could pertain to uplifting others.

It is worth a read though. It is 523 pages worth of harrowing thought processes from strange young people who delve into murderous behavior, but the consequences are appropriate in the end. If the author’s story has truth in it due to her actually living the life in this manner and type of education–and I believe she is well educated and from a well established home– then I must say, now I understand why we have so many screwed up rich people, and so many suicides in general. Thanks Donna Tartt. By the way, she won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, so read it, it will shake you up a bit.

While we’re at it, let me mention: this is the second book I’ve read of this author. She is astute, amazing, a great writer, which is why I keep coming back to her. I need to read another of her books, she keeps getting accolades for her work, and I see why. The next book, after this one, and “The Goldfinch”–which, by the way has been made into a television movie (I was not impressed with the movie maker, who did not seem to really grasp the inner depth of the characters)–I am going to read “The Little Friend.” I will let you know how that one goes, I already told you about “The Goldfinch,” loved it, and now this one, I must grudgingly say, I loved it too.

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Review: “The Rooster Bar”

by John Grisham

John Grisham has a wickedly mischievous mind. If I did not know any better, I’d think this book might be about his own youth. But then again, I do not think he lives in some isolated landing with a partner in crime, and owns some bar in a remote island somewhere… or does he! 

The Rooster Bar is a pretty fast, and fun read for those of you who are seeking to just have a couple of evenings doing nothing, relaxing and enjoying a virtual adventure. The story is interesting in that it speaks to middle class college and education students who are hopeful to find the perfect successful profession in law, but soon become bewildered about the school loan issue. Yes, it bewilders me as well. I wonder why we don’t hold these danged schools accountable if they offer to give you loans and tell you that you will be able to get a job in the field that you take coursework under, and then you don’t. I think if those students are unable to find the right job, the school should wipe out their loans completely… well….anyway… the loans should become zilch. And if they don’t we can always live vicariously in such characters as these who find a way to abandon their loan problem, at least for a while.

These students began a host of criminal behaviors because of the loans but it especially began when they lost a friend over such an event regarding career busts. After their friend commits suicide, they are emboldened to outsmart the system, and frankly they are somewhat impressive–until their not. 

Trust me; you will enjoy this read. Just don’t take it too seriously.

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Review: “Bird by Bird”

by Anne Lamott

This is not a fictional novel, but it’s a good read. The author is clever, insightful, deeper than the average layman, and comical at times–sorrowful at others.

The book is written by Author, Anne Lamott, who is depicting a sort of journal/essay, hence a creative non-fiction? Yes. Very much makes one feel like one is traveling with the writer to decipher the moods, the emotions, the many facets of noveling, writing, thinking, comparing notes, and just plain talk about the work and projectile of book making and reading and writing.

I enjoyed this book very much because I felt like Anne Lamott was actually conversing with me intimately about the trials and tribulations of living under such a label as writer and thinker. What the average person does not realize is how much thought goes into a writer’s mind to write, and how much work goes into writing, editing, correcting, inserting, and formalizing a work of art for the public reader.

If you want to be inspired, reflective, cognitive of what you do when you write, read a writer like Anne Lamott; read this book “Bird by Bird.” The name significes an event, but it is a metaphor for each individual and their journey. It’s good for you, and besides: it’s a quick read, as long as it takes to sit with Anne [virtually], have a cup of java or two, chatting at some cafe. Same thing; you and her. She writes like she knows you. She writes like she likes you.

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Review: “Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

“The panic that overtook me then was hard to explain. Those game days broke up with a swiftness, a sense of losing blood almost, that reminded me of watching the apartment in New York being boxed up and carted away: groundlessness and flux, nothing to hang on to.” (p.303)

While the title presupposes a story about the famous painting by a Dutch painter of the 1600s, it is really a trope that threads throughout the novel, indicating how one who has been traumatized, needs some kind of connection to that life before the trauma. I might add here that I am a fan of theme. For me, this book is significant as an example of classic proportions because it speaks to a formation of the human soul. This is what struck deep inside me.

This is a story about a young fourteen-year-old boy whose life in the backdrop of New York City is routine and phlegmatic. Abruptly his life changes from a protected child into a motherless frightened kid, into finally a drugged out, piteous orphan, after meeting and living for a short period with his father.

His drugged out existence informs us, without ever really saying it, how one can become a sad and lonely human being; all this beginning within a few moments, as his mother is blown away by a bomb in the museum they were visiting for a while before he and his mother keep an appointment with his school principal. Talk about a twist of fate.

This is a true bildungsroman and the reader will find that the main character, as well as all the other characters, will resonate throughout, and long after when the reading is finished. I could not stop thinking about the author, the character, and the many situational ironies, consequences of fate, and so on–all of which made me thankful for the happy moments we all receive here and there before any kind of trauma exists.  For those others who may not be so fortunate, or who may be beleaguered by hard circumstances that force choices one might never have taken had one never experienced sudden tragedy–my heart has been touched forever.

I am looking forward to reading her first book, “The Secret History” because not only does she reign in storytelling, but her turn of phrases, her metaphors, and her way of telling it, glistens with a cup full of romanticism; she uses the English language masterfully. You will certainly attain your money’s worth of a read, as many others agree, for she has won the Pulitzer Prize in the year of its publishing, was considered one of the best books of the year by many authoritative journals, magazines and on and on.

The psychology in the novel, by enlisting a host of diverse characters, demonstrates a child’s loss and how that child who suddenly becomes orphaned may lack love and guidance and the way in which people survive in spite of loss but inherit an anomic character, such as the main character Leo. This is an interesting term, anomie, and is further explained in sociological definitions: https://www.britannica.com/topic/anomie 

 

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Review: Letters from Alaska

Letters From Alaska: A Novel Trilogy

(Book II)

Author, John Shields (2008)

ISBN: 978-1-4357-3093-9

Price: $17.04, Paperback, 349 pages

 

Author, John Shields’ book is exceptional; he is a highly descriptive writer, in the genre of academic fiction. There is no question as to what his book is about. Shields’ prose is written as precise as a careful surgeon. His structural narrative with the minds and movements of his characters and plot, exhibits the theme clearly, and is well balanced. This book is second in Shields’ trilogy, which illustrates the middle years of the life of the protagonist, Ansley Perkins, as he was the intellectual collegiate, yet inexperienced young man, whose intellectual philosophy in the Postmodern view manifest fully in these college days, displaying his disconcert with the status quo as he views society in the light of the 60s in America: Viet Nam, Civil Rights, and animosity toward our country’s political machine. Shield’s knowledge of the subject is comprehensive.

 

Book II of Letters From Alaska depicts the collegiate community and Hippie Generation, being described through the eyes and intellect of graduate student, Ansley Perkins, an astute and ingenius young man who himself personifies the time period as it has never been understood before. Events, such as the war in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Hippie experience and the profuse hedonism of the 60s—sex, drugs and rock and roll—all reflecting the age of Postmodernism—are constructed precisely within the mind of the protagonist, who begins his journey in Alaska, at Alaska University, forming the ideas that he believes are a natural reaction to the professions of American patriotism, conformity and convention. It seems Ansley’s vision is to change the world and return man to man’s true place in nature and the universe, by examining traditional America head on. He is constantly challenging his peers, parents, and students with controversial behavior and claims, like outrageous poetry, like crow screetches, sarcasm, cynicism about professors, teachings of societal flaws to students; but also, courageous outbursts, and sincere searching through the newly developing postmodernist ideology.    Ansley de-constructs every traditional idea and rails every chance he gets, against the status quo, to prove mostly to himself that he will not fall into the same patterns as those before him, one of the reasons why he chose Alaska University, teaching in a wilderness setting, yet unspoiled by the larger American society. He is obsessively concerned with man and society’s destination—he is obsessively concerned with his own life and his choices.

“It’s like the Freudian ego,” and I put ‘ego’ on the board beside Freud’s name. ‘Ego is the false self,’ I said; ‘ego is the mere appearance of the true self. It’s what stands there waiting to be adorned by roles and labels; it’s what bounces off society’s reflective screen. How society regards us is how we are to regard ourselves. There is no reality apart from society.’ (61)

Ansley relishes in his new wildlife surroundings, while being given classes to teach, and while working on his master’s degree, amidst the Alaskan wildlife. He is ever entranced and raptured by its natural state and beauty: “Rabbits abound; birds: an exceedingly large and rotund variety of pale gray jay. Mice, I imagine, amongst the mushrooms and fecund leaves; perhaps a shrew or two nosing around. No snakes. No snakes in Alaska.”(11) But he also has those yearnings in him that try to understand where he comes from, who and what his roots are, and why he has to listen to anyone or anything about the things he considers to be his own consequence and direction.

 

Ansley is the quintessential consciousness of the Postmodern Ideology at work. Throughout the book he analyzes his peers, his professors, his family, his fiancee’s family, and every one of the establishment. The reader explores the spirit within the man of the 60s generation—you can’t get any closer to the 60s than this, from the standpoint of an educated revolutionist in. Though subjective and from the standpoint of a particular type of man, it is a perspective and voice from the 60s generation, nonetheless.  Ansley is anti-establishment, anti-war, and anti-conservative American thought at the boiling point of the post-modernist unrest. His motive seems to be to prove himself capable of living on the fringe of society, while not really believing in it, and not really accepting it, yet using it as he chooses. He wrestles with the need for it, the need to be in it, to work within the confines somehow, without being actually touched by it.

 

While Ansley still lives within the confines of society—like frequenting established eating houses, drinking and carousing with his friends, and enjoying the vehicles made by the grand machine of conformers, he still scoffs at all that there is, in favor of some  primal return, and we see that Ansley Perkins is not only highly intelligent, but highly young and inexperienced in life, wanting to create in himself a kind of man different than the men he knows through his father, Suzanne’ father, and his sister’s husband, and other sell-outs.

 

This book, only one of  the trilogy, will give you a deep understanding of one specific subculture of the 60s and its concepts about life and society, as well as one man’s personal growth, personal love, and personal identity.

 

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Review: “The Bridge of Madison County”

by Robert James Waller

I just re-read “The Bridges of Madison County,” don’t ask me why, I guess I just wanted to look into that theme again. I have seen the movie, too. I simply needed to reconnect with it and think about it again41F1aS+XUkL._AC_US160_. I actually love this story. It’s not the healthiest outlook on life–secret adultery unknown to family until one dies and the children find the evidence–one wonders about the author; engaging, insightful, and untrusting, ha! Just my instinctive reaction to the story, but then, I’ve read it twice? Am I living vicariously through them, you wonder?

Let me give  you a quick synopsis. It’s about a mid forties woman who longs to have chosen differently than being a farmer’s wife in the middle of a small town in Iowa. She is Italian, and was brought to The U.S. during her husband’s wartime stay in Naples. She meets this somewhat “drifter” who is more like her personality as he is artistic, creative, as she is, and they fall in love. That’s the first taboo, and I can’t help but admit I liked it. The part where they have so much in common, which sadly she does not have with her husband.

They have all of four days together, and he wants to tell her husband “sorry, this just happened, we are very much in love, and Francesca is leaving with me.” But she says “NO,” she cannot do that to her husband or her two children. She loves him terribly, but she does not want to leave a wreckage behind. So he leaves, they never come together again, and there is more but I’ll leave that to your reading.

I cried again. I have cried at the movie, cried when I first read it, and cried again. I cannot understand why we do the things we do, but this story was somewhat true (partly fictional of course, partly true), by reading letters, legal docs, etc. Or maybe it’s all fictional, and the author Robert James Waller, made it all up. Authors are creative geniuses, you know…

The author’s style of writing reminds me of the Tennessee Williams style: simple, warm, down-to-earth writing of middle America, and explaining how his characters get through his plot and their simple existence, but when it is needed he knows how to bring out the emotional guns, with words of bittersweet and desire.

I have been trying to re-read “the Catcher in the Rye,” but it isn’t happening for me right now. I had read recently “Love Medicine” by Louise Erdrich, and that book made me cry, too. It’s theme was more the human condition, whereas “Bridges…” was more about the need for deep love and emotional and creative connection.

My main point for writing this review is for myself, because the author, Waller, really doesn’t need a review, as his book was a mega hit; see the movie. I wrote it because I just wanted to share my feelings about unrequited love, or love that cannot be. My heart went out to the husband as well, for he had no idea what went on inside his wife’s heart, but that was partly his own error, for he did not seem to know ANYTHING that was going on in his wife’s life except for her good cooking and caring for the household and the family.

Henceforth, she sought someone who would love her heart. It is an archetypal character who suffers in love; and the plot of being unable to remain with whom you love, but instead sacrificing for the right reasons of conventions, kindnesses to family, not to wreak havoc to those who would be left behind, and so forth. Nonetheless, the one who gives that love up is sacrificing a great deal, and somehow, they will never be the same whether it was the wife, or the husband.

That, folks, is the great tragedy; a very painful choice, and it is a sweet sadness. A good read, short, easy, finished it in that day.

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Review: “The Roads We Take”

by Ethan Edgewood

Most of us have heard of J. D. Salinger, and the famous novel: “The Catcher in the Rye.” In fact, that novel (1951), and the author, Jerome David Salinger, who has since died (1/27/2010) at the ripe age of 91, has been a mainstay in high schools across America for what the novel deals with: complex issues of innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._D._Salinger). But that was then; this is now.

Author, Ethan Edgewood is a new writer of the modern age, having written his first novel “The Roads We Take” (2016), and I might say it deals very much with some of the same “complex issues” of innocence, identity, and so forth, except not in high school, but as with many young people in their twenties, today. So this novel is quite frankly a very good assessment of today’s young people who are looking for direction in their lives. Probably a good read for the college level young adults, starting out, although the characters are not college students, only college age; they are fair to say, drop-outs, who discover a right of passage much varied from the educated upper middle class. They struggle to learn who they are and how they must either conform or contrast to criminality.

What is different–and yet, the same–is the nostalgia, and sometimes poignant truth of the difficulty of getting through life’s lessons as a young person: either one grows, or falls short and into trouble, and that is the biggest theme of all, how taking one road can lead a way that helps one progress, or another road, that can lead the way you do not want to go. The excitement is in the trip, where two young men full of youth, restlessness, and mischief, find themselves wondering what might happen if they take a road trip and decide to give it a go.

During the timeframe of a week on the road, the reader finds out who these two young men really are, and what makes them do what they do, on which roads they plan or don’t plan to travel, and why.

Perhaps some may say the story’s been told, but one must remember, every story in the world has been told: it takes a good storyteller to tell it again with variation. And this is what I’ve found in the author’s novel.

J.D. Salinger might have died, but he may have been reincarnated in Ethan Edgewood. If not, Ethan has a good grip on Salinger’s style, albeit, not exactly the same in semantics, syntax, and grammar, but close enough to say this author, Edgewood, knows how to tell a story, make the reader a part of that story, and makes the reader think about those thematic truths within the story, whether we’ve heard it before or not. I liked it, and I loved reading about the angst of and sometimes tormenting choices in, youth and human progress. To read it, one might find a wide ray of hope in humanity, once again.

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