“The Great Unexpected” by Dan Mooney

Genre:           General FictionThe Great Unexpected
Publisher:    Trade Publishing
Pub. Date:    June 25, 2019

This tenderly written novel is both depressing and hilarious.  The plot revolves around two old men living in a nursing home.   Think “A Man Called Ove” meets “The Odd Couple.”  One is an introverted curmudgeon who has been there for years and considers his place of residency a prison.  He walks around all day in his pajamas.  In younger years he was a working-class mechanic who owned the shop.  Nowadays, he desperately misses being the boss.  He has given up on life and has suicidal thoughts.  The other old dude is a sweetheart who has just moved in.  He once worked as a soap opera actor.  He is flamboyant, extraverted and just happens to be gay.  This man dresses meticulously and always wears an accent scarf.  He makes the best out of the living in the home, though he too misses his working life.  The author has them sharing a room opening up all sorts of humor.  Mooney does a great job nailing their differences and incompatibility.  In the “outside world” they would never have been friends, but “locked up” together they create an unbreakable ying-yang friendship.

The real meat on the bones of the story is how the elderly are often thrown aside and made to feel isolated and useless.  Mooney shows this best when the two old men sneak out to visit the mechanic’s old shop.  The reader will feel the weight of depression when the mechanic realizes that now he is just an intruder and is asked to leave the premises. The author skillfully handles the sensitive subject of suicide.  And somehow manages to make humor work so it doesn’t read all doom and gloom.  He does this without minimizing the seriousness of suicidal ideation.  Not an easy task.  At times the writing gets sweetly/schmaltzy with a family reconnecting.   Nor is the plot always believable.  If you have ever been in a nursing home you know that sneaking out is unlikely. Still,  two old man enjoying high school antics is fun to read.    If you are in the mood for a story that will make you cry and laugh at the same time this one is for you.

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“Little Faith” by Nickolas Butler

Genre:           Psychological FictionLittle Faith
Publisher:    HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

This is a story about religious extremism and how it can destroy a family as well as a town.  But this is not the loud and angry tale one might expect from such a premise.  It’s a quietly and delicately penned.  In many ways, Butler’s “Little Faith” reads like “Plainsong,” written by the acclaimed American author Kent Haruf.   “”Faith” also has similarities to any novel written by Howard Frank Mosher, a much loved American author.  “Plainsong” is located in Denver.  Mosher’s fiction takes place in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   “Faith” is also located in another small American town, this one in Wisconsin.

The residents are plain-spoken people, needing not much from the world, but a good crop, family, friends, and a place to worship together as a community.   The reader will meet grandparents who are in their mid-sixties—not quite old but content being in their autumn years.  They are helping to raise their five-year-old grandson, whom they adore.   He is the child of their single-mother daughter. The daughter may be the only character who is difficult to grasp.  Butler never really explains why she can be unkind and manipulative towards her parents.  She left home years, ago returning with a little boy.  The grandfather is the story’s narrator.  Some of the novel’s sweetest scenes are between himself and his grandson. “Oh he loved the boy; and that was all there was to it.”  The book is divided into seasons.  The lyrics to the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” are the essence of this novel.  “To everything, There is a season, And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

Friction in their little family begins when their daughter falls for a new young preacher who has just come into their little town.  He creates a new fire and brimstone congregation.  He may or may not be selling snake oil.  No matter, she is smitten.  As Dusty sang “The only one who could ever reach [teach me] was the son of a preacher man.”   When he tells her that he is convinced that her son has healing powers, she never doubts him for a minute.  This will lead to a crisis that will boil over into their community.  Throughout the book, the reader will follow all the main characters on their own private religious journeys.  However, although the story is filled with theological questions, and undoubtedly the book is exploring one’s religious beliefs or lack of them, its strength lies in the author’s tender descriptions of how his characters chose to live their lives.

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“A Thing Of The Moment” by Bruno Noble

Genre:          Abuse/Family Drama/Coming of AgeA Thing of the Moment
Publisher:    Unbound Digital
Pub. Date:    June 14, 2018

Not many male authors can write young female narratives as well as this author.  Written as an interwoven narrative, the reader will follow three female characters who suffer from sexual and self-worth issues.  We meet them as children and watch them grow into teenagers.   In the second half of the book they are women in their late twenties.  Finally, there is a quick glimpse of their middle-aged years.   As children: one girl is sexually abused by her father.  Another is emotionally abused by her rejecting parents.  The third, and possibly the most interesting child, has supportive parents who encourage her to spread her wings.  Still, like the other two, she feels alone.  In the first half of the book, Noble manages to write their sad stories in an intellectual and yet still stirring novel—Tear-jerking but not melodramatic.

He uses butterflies as a constant metaphor throughout the novel.  The sexually abusive father is a butterfly collector, reminiscent of the early 1960s creepy novel and movie, “The Collector.”  His daughter can leave her body.  This phenomenon is a well-documented coping mechanism for abused children.  Her experiences are captured realistically through the eyes of a confused child.   Noble brings her alive by exposing her naïve thoughts and childhood vulnerability.  The second girl’s parents, who literally do not want her, seem just as evil as the sexually abusive father.  It is hinted that she may not be the biological child to her father.  He adores his other children.   Her narrative is written a tad too much like “Cinderella.”  The author manages to salvage the fairytale-like feeling when placing the attention onto her mother.  She is a complex character who ignores her maternal guilt by focusing on becoming a well-groomed, successful businesswoman.  The loving and self-sacrificing parents of the third girl put all their efforts into encouraging her to rise above their working poor status.  They want her to be her own person, and to one day leave their misogynistic country.  It is interesting to read how these parents completely miss that their child has trouble making emotional attachments.  This causes the girl to be insecure.   She learns to cope with her insecurity by believing she is different because she is special. Noble does a good job making the reader wonder if this protagonist is mentally off, or just unappreciative—Spoiled by the attention.

Once women, the novel does not read nearly as well as when they were girls.  Their adult lives’ read like an add-on to the real book.   Nothing flows smoothly.  Often written in a free-floating prose, which constantly begs the reader to question; humankind, sexuality, and how we connect to the universe.  Unless you are interested in being part of a philosophy class, this is skimming material.  Then there are endless scenes of thinly veiled references to cannibalism: butcher shops, meat factories, biting in sex, and so on and so forth.  The metaphor of eating another’s flesh, or soul, works brilliantly when written through the eyes of an innocent child trying to make sense of their abuse.  But as adult women, the theme is not needed and becomes tiring.  The author brings in a male character.  He has a relationship with all three women.  Yet, somehow he doesn’t feel like a main character, but another add-on.  And then there is the possible fair (?) ending.  (Spoiler)  The two abused girls become well-adjusted middle-aged women.  The girl whose parents lavished love onto her is a non-likable narcissistic woman.  She demonstrates borderline personality traits (one who enjoys sabotaging others.)  Why?  It feels like a dangerous over-simplification, almost like he’s saying you need to traumatize a girl or she’ll turn out to be insufferable.   This particular character got the short end of the stick.  The latter part of the novel does have redeeming moments.  Noble succeeds in his quest to get the reader to wonder how their own body, mind, and soul are connected.  Still, one is left with the feeling that they have read two different books.  One might prefer one to the other but as a whole, they do not fit.  Is there a way to recommend half of a book?

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“Wingspan” by Chris Bohjalian

Genre:            General Fiction
Publisher:    Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Pub. Date:    March 26, 2019

Mini Review

The award-winning author Chris Bohjalian has written his first play, “Wingspan.”  The one-act play has been published as a novella.  The tale revolves around two female flight attendants.   In 2018, Bohjalian had a bestselling thriller, “The Flight Attendant.”   This is not a sequel as one might suspect.  The novella is clearly not a thriller.  Once the reader has finished the last page, the title’s metaphor will be clearly understood. “Wingspan,” demonstrates that Bohjalian is masterful at writing concise dialogue that makes the reader simultaneously laugh and cry along with his characters.  You will meet a young, newly trained flight attendant, who just happens to have a fear of flying.  And then there is her older, wisecracking, experienced coworker whose sassy manner can hide her intelligence.  By the end of the flight, the older woman knows the younger woman’s secrets.  This story may be sparse but is plentiful with feeling in tune to the #MeToo movement.

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“The Tubman Command” by Elizabeth Cobbs

Genre:         Historical FictionTubman
Publisher:    Skyhorse Publishing
Pub. Date:   May 21, 2019

Mini Review

The author of “The Hamilton Affair” has written another interesting historical novel, “The Tubman Command.”  In this flawlessly researched novel, one learns of the lesser known heroic deeds of the black icon Harriet Tubman AKA Moses.  Most people have heard of Tubman for engineering the Underground Railroad and smuggling fugitive slaves from the South to the North.  This novel veers away from that part of her life and instead concentrates on her lesser known missions as a spy for the Union army.  Her efforts helped turn the tide during the Civil War, which, as of May 1863, the North was losing.  Cobbs keeps the writing authentic in many ways, such as using the long-forgotten dialect of the Africans living in Hilton Head Island located in South Carolina.  This is where Tubman and her scouts locate Rebel underwater mines.   Adding to the appreciated realism, each chapter begins with an actual and often moving quote from a general, colonel, scout or slave regarding Moses’ extraordinary talents.  The author shines brightest when she brings focus to the human side of the famous woman.  The story fluctuates between Harriet’s determined dedication to freeing people from slavery and her sense of burden and loss in her personal life.  She left her first husband to pursue her own freedom and outlived her second husband.  The author allows her heroine a love affair, which she admits in the endnotes to be pure fiction. This sexual relationship may not have been needed other than as a means to reach an audience who simply want romance in their stories.  Still, Cobbs emphasizes that, although her real-life protagonist was a lonely woman, she knew she was equal, or more probably, superior to any man, black or white.

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“The Pandora Room” by Christopher Golden

(On a personal note, my husband is weak as a kitten but home.  Once again, thanks for all the support.)

Genre:         Mystery & ThrillersThe Pandora room
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   April 23, 2019

This is the author’s second novel with his protagonist, Ben Walker.  Think James Bond, only more realistic. This hero actually feels chronic pain from injuries incurred during his fights with bad guys. The reader first meets the character in Golden’s 2017 novel, “Ararat.”  He joins an archaeological expedition, digging deep within a mountain located in Turkey.  They were looking to find Noah’s ark (and stumbles instead on to the devil).  In “Pandora,” he joins another expedition. Once again, Walker becomes part of the team as a member of the National Science Foundation.  In reality, he works for the US government—spy lies. Nothing new about books with spies and forces beyond scientific understanding, but Golden does it very well, reminiscent to “The Age of Exodus,” by Gavin Scott. In “Pandora,” the archaeological team learns that the infamous titular box is real and buried in an ancient subterranean city located in Northern Iraq.  Golden is a master at creating a claustrophobic atmosphere filled with evil, both real and hallucinatory.  The infamous titular box, which is a jar in this novel, is filled with ancient diseases that once opened turns into a plague.  Do not be surprised if you begin to feel a sore throat.

Enhancing the tale, “Pandora” has an element of current affairs to it.  It seems that both governments, the US and the Iraqis, want the jar in their hands to be used as a weapon.  Now that is a thought that is truly terrifying and probably not all that farfetched.  In this sequel, Walker is fighting demon ghosts underground and soldiers above ground:  A very nice touch.  “Pandora” does not quite have the same finesse as “Exodus.”  Scott simply never misses a beat.  Golden spends a good deal of time explaining why the team is actually experiencing two different types of disease: skimming material.  Still, Ben Walker#2 is a very good supernatural fantasy.  The similarities in both Walker tales are obvious, but as long as you go in knowing this, you will not be disappointed.  If you didn’t read the first tale, this can easily be a standalone novel.   “Pandora” is written razor-sharp to scare the bejesus out of the reader.  Your adrenaline should rise with each chapter.  The secret to Golden’s success seems to be that he writes about supernatural thrills with just the right amount of religious references to make it all feel grounded in something familiar.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Visitor” by Ti Ca

Genre:          Family Drama/MysteryThe Visitor
Publisher:    Patritus LLC
Pub. Date:    Jan 6, 2019

This is my first novel from BookSirens, which is an Amazon connected book directory for Advance Review Copies (ARC) of books.  I do not usually read Indie authors or Amazon/Kindle First Reads.  Some can be quite good, but I simply have too many books to read and review on my “to be read list.”  My lists are filled with my preferred literary genres, written by my favorite powerhouse authors.    Nor am I usually a fan of best sellers.  Yes, I can be a book snob.  This is why I don’t usually explore books outside of my comfort zone.  I am glad that I did so with “The Visitor.”  I found this character-driven novella to be a sophisticated mystery that includes aging and memory loss, as well as a father-son story about poverty and education.

The story is narrated in the first person by two protagonists:   An elderly woman alone in her home waiting for her husband to return from the store, and the visitor, who is a stranger, but clearly wants to help this woman.   Who is in dire need of help.  We meet them both on Christmas Eve.  Her “furnace has gone out, the breaker needs to be reset, and the cupboards lie empty.”  It is clear that the woman has a failing memory.  “Visitor” has hints of the novel “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey, whose heroine has Alzheimer’s.  There is a tragedy to be found in both of these novels.

Though I don’t believe that “Visitor” is located in Appalachia, I also find elements of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir” by J.D. Vance.  And “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover.  Both books have the same theme that can be found in “Visitor”—overcoming the cruelty of poverty and severe family dysfunction through one’s thirst to learn.  Plus, the father-son part of “Visitor” reminds me of “The Kite Runner.”  Ca is in with good company.

It took me a while to figure out who the mysterious stranger is, or who the librarian is, and how they are connected to the old woman.   I was delighted that the author was able to keep me wondering.  But go in knowing that “Visitor” is sometimes written in a confusing manner.  The author weaves together the underlying sub-plots of past and present timelines a little too abruptly, especially when switching into the third person.  Still, I found the novella interesting enough to go back and re-read the parts where I felt confused.  In this book, what really hooked me is that the author asks the questions:  What exactly is family love?  How do we handle tragedy? Why do some people rise above rather than fall into, the clutches of poverty? Though “Visitor” is not in the same class as the other books I mention, I still recommend you give it a try.  It is a good Indie read.

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