Review of “The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore

 

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I do not care so much for a great fortune as I do for getting ahead of the other fellows.  – Thomas Edison

Until I read this book, I had an impression of what it would have been like to see the night lit for the first time. It was terribly romantic. It was surreal, ethereal, and peaceful. (Sort of like this book’s beautiful cover.) There were scientists and engineers of all sorts slapping each other on the back, congratulating themselves on their enormous contribution to mankind.  Thomas Edison was one of these scientists, of course, and he was a jolly good fellow. He lead this collaboration of gifted men with the grace, elegance, and credibility only natural born leaders of that period possessed.

It seems I was mistaken.

Graham Moore’s  latest novel, The Last Day’s of Night, is the story of the War of Currents. Though it is a work of fiction, the majority of it is historically accurate and all of the characters did exist including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, and Westinghouse’s attorney, Paul Cravath. Paul, a fresh-out-school attorney in is mid-twenties is hired by Westinghouse to defend him in a law suit Thomas Edison has brought forth demanding the outrageous sum of one billion dollars.

Paul is a thoroughly likable young man who quickly finds himself in over his head. He is, however, determined to win at all costs. He is ambitious, driven, and singularly focused. As time goes on he morphs from naive rookie to shrewd, calculating, savvy attorney. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few SNAFUs along the way… (Though I’d never heard of him, he is apparently quite well-known in the legal world. In fact, the firm he eventually started is still in existence and continues to use the Cravath Sytem which has been credited with changing the way lawyers practice and law firm are structured.)

This book is more intriguing that I could have imagined. All of the same components of modern corporate conflicts and greed existed then. And these scientists we’ve come to hold in such high esteem where not exempt from engaging in all manner of unscrupulous behavior in their quest to be the first and best. From patent infringement to character assassination, from corporate espionage to arson, nothing was off limits.

The author tells this story in such an amazingly engaging, page-turning way that I was fully entertained while being educated. That, I think, is the pinnacle of happiness for those of us semi-obsessed with historical fiction.

There is already a movie in the works. Moore has done the adaptation. My expectations are admittedly very high after having seen The Imitation Game which he adapted from the book Alan Turing: The Engima  by Andrew Hodges.

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Random House for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Stranger, Father, Beloved” by Taylor Larsen

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The book begins with Michael seeing his wife, Nancy, talking to another man at a party. He decides that this is the man who should be married to Nancy. He promptly begins working on his plan to make this man Nancy’s new husband.

This is a strange book in the sense that a decent writer (clean, articulate language, etc.) has written a bad story about mostly bad, unlikable characters. My instinct about twenty per cent through the book was to put the book down, mark it DNF, and move on with my life. I didn’t do that for two reasons. The first is that it’s a fairly short book and I knew it would only take me another day or two get through. The second is that I appreciated the author’s writing style enough that I kept hoping that the plot would change, that something would happen to make it a more pleasant to read. Sadly, this did not happen.

We learn that Michael has some behavioral health issues. He suffers from a neurotic paranoia that has been difficult for him to mask/control for most of his life. He also has some other issues but I don’t want to give too much away. These issues, however, do not explain why Michael has such utter contempt and disrespect for women. With the exception of his precious mother, that is. I found his personality to be offensive and didn’t feel it had anything to do with his legitimate diagnosis. He was simply a thoroughly unlikable man.

As for the other characters, I found most of them to be very stereotyped and one-dimensional. Nancy is too timid, too self-sacrificing, too compliant. NO ONE is that nice, that wholesome. I understand that she feels a little inferior because of her lack of education but it was all too much. John, the would-be husband, is too pure, too salt of the Earth.

1.75/5 stars

I would like to thank Gallery Books for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of Sober Stick Figure: A Memoir by Amber Tozer

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Amber Tozer is super-funny, brutally honest comedian who has bravely chosen to share her story of alcoholism and recovery with the world. If you’re thinking this is another super-heavy memoir that will leave you feeling  nothing but depression and pity, just take a look at the cover. That sick figure version of Amber makes frequent appearances throughout the book…

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In a very real and funny way, Amber Tozer shares how and why she first began drinking, how her drinking became out of control, her struggles to gain control, and finally, how she was able to get sober. And there are also several funny stories about urine. And a few other funny (funny haha and funny odd) stories that have little or nothing at all to do with urine.

It’s refreshing to hear another human being share their insecurities and worst moments with such candor and humor.There’s no blame game being played here (though the author did have some difficult moments in her childhood). And though I got the sense that she definitely had some regrets about some of the things that occurred while she was drinking, this isn’t a preachy book about redemption or regret and self-loathing.  I got the sense that she was sharing her story to make people smile and to help others who may be having a difficult time.

Sober Stick Figure was a quick, page-turning, one-day read for me.

4.5/5 stars

Thanks to Running Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “We Could Be Beautiful” by Swan Huntley

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Catherine West is a wealthy trust fund (43 year old) kid living the good life in Manhattan. Like many wealthy people, she seems to have it all from the outside. Her days are spent bag shopping and lunching (though she doesn’t actually eat anything). Her nights are filled with gallery openings other society events. Somehow she manages to squeeze in massages on Sundays. She barely has time for involvement in the boutique stationary store she owns though she considers being a small business owner an important part of her identity. She is superficial and judgmental. Even her generosity (she loves to mention that she throws money at her staff, waiters, etc.) seems egocentric rather than being born of a need to actually help or reward people. Though she has been burned a few times when it comes to love, and she longs to have a husband and family, she’s such a you-know-what that it’s hard to find any sympathy for her.

She has a sister who adores her but she finds Caroline to be weak and needy. She judges her parenting skills. She’s happy to let Caroline take on the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to caring for their mother who has recently been moved to an assisted living facility due to the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.

When she meets William Stockton at a gallery opening, things begin to look up for Catherine. He’s handsome and cultured and his parents were friends of Catherine’s parents many years before. This move very quickly and they become engaged. However, it soon becomes apparent something may be a little off with William. Catherine struggles with her competing emotions. On one hand, she’s ecstatic that she’s found her Mr. Wonderful. On the other, she has some questions and William is not exactly open to talking about the past. And why is it that her mother shuts down at the mere mention of the name William Stockton? With her wedding growing nearer by the day, Catherine needs to find out.

The first half of We Could Be Beautiful was difficult for me to get through. It didn’t feel psychological or mystery-like. It felt like Chick-Lit. There’s nothing wrong with Chick-Lit if that’s your preferred genre but it’s generally not mine. Fortunately, the second half was much better. I won’t include much in the way of spoilers but I will say I think Catherine (finally!) grew up.

This was, overall, a solid debut. Though originally categorized as General Fiction on NetGalley, I see that it has now been recategorized as Women’s Fiction on the Penguin Random House  website which I think is more fitting and will draw a more appropriate and appreciative audience.

3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Doubleday via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of The Girls by Emma Cline

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The Girls , Emma Cline’s highly-anticipated debut novel, is the story of 14 year old Evie, growing up in 1960’s  California, and how she becomes entangled with a violent cult. Evie is now an adult who has, for the most part, moved on with her life. The story toggles back and forth between the two timelines in a well-paced and seamless manner.

The parallels with the Manson killings of that time are very obvious. I’m a bit obsessed with true crime books and TV (ID is pretty much the only thing I watch). I read Helter Skelter many, many years ago, and was fascinated by the ability of Charles Manson to control the minds and actions of so many people. Let’s face it – he was a super-creepy looking misfit. What were these people thinking??

I was hoping this book would answer that question and really dig deep into what makes people join cults and allow themselves to be brainwashed in such a way. We know that they are often looking for a sense of belonging and acceptance. (Evie’s parents had recently divorced and she had become estranged from her BFF… ) We know they are often young and beginning to use/are using drugs and alcohol. (Evie does.) We know they often feel a lack of control and a resentment toward authority. (Evie is about to be sent to a boarding school against her will.) But there must be something much deeper and darker. Many young adults have similar experiences and don’t seek out murderous cults to be their surrogate family.

While this book was a page-turner, I didn’t gain a clear enough understanding of why Evie joined, and kept going back to, this cult.While I understand that Evie’s attraction to and fascination with Suzanne, the most influential of the girls, was a major factor, I don’t think it was enough. And it didn’t explain how Russell was able to gain such power and influence over the rest of the group. I needed more details. Russell, the leader of the cult, was not as central a character as I’d expected him to be and I was a little disappointed in that. I would have liked to see him more fully developed and to understand more about his relationships within the group.

 

Overall, however, this was a very solid debut novel. I feel that if I didn’t know so much about the Manson Family, I may have actually enjoyed it more. It was unable to stop making constant comparisons between the novel and the real-life story and I think that certainly had an impact on my overall impression of the book.  I would look forward to reading Emma Cline’s next book even though I didn’t end up loving this one as much as I’d hoped.

My rating: 3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

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Britt-Marie was an intensely unlikable woman in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s SorryPerhaps that’s because she was so unhappy herself. I’m so glad I was able to get to know her better in Britt-Marie Was HereIt should be mentioned that, although I highly recommend reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and you will be even more impressed by Britt-Marie in this book if you do, you won’t have any trouble at all reading this as a stand-alone.

Sixty-three year old Britt-Marie has finally left her philandering husband and is trying to move on with her life. But there are more than a few obstacles in her way. To begin with, it’s more than a little difficult for a woman her age, who has not been gainfully employed in forty-some years to find a job in the middle of a financial crisis. But Britt-Marie is very resourceful. And by this, I mean that she pesters the poor young woman at the unemployment office, wearing her down until she finds her a position in the somewhat disadvantaged town of Borg. Thus begins Britt-Marie’s journey toward independence, friendships, and self-actualization(!). No small accomplishments for this very quirky, somewhat neurotic, maker-of-lists, and keeper of order who loathes soccer, has never had children of her own, and has somehow become the children’s soccer coach in Borg.

This is one of those books that is not terribly long, and is written very simply, but packs a huge punch in terms of conveying an astounding amount of emotional ranges and the understanding of human relationships.(And, at times, those with dogs and rats.) From desperation and sadness to hopefulness and redemption, it’s impossible not to laugh and cry, at times simultaneously. It is a beautiful thing, how Britt-Marie became such a vital part of the community. And even more so how the community became such a vital part of her.

Every character is so carefully revealed and so richly developed it would be quite easy to convince me I actually knew them. There are too many to mention but individually but I will say that I wouldn’t mind having a beer with Bank and Somebody. But as much as each character stands out individually, it’s the collective character of the town that is most unique and endearing.They are mostly good people, doing the best they can. And while they may not agree on every little thing, when the you-know-what hits the fan, they stand together. Many of us have lived in Borg, if not geographically, then metaphorically, at one time or another. And if not, then we should wish that we had.

 

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Atria Books via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper” by Phaedra Patrick

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Arthur Pepper misses his wife. It has been a year since she passed away. Miriam and Arthur were married for forty happy, peaceful, uneventful years. It’s not until Arthur steels himself to the task of sorting her things that he discovers a charm bracelet he’d never seen before. A telephone call to a number on one of the charms prompts Arthur to begin a journey in search of the truth of his wife’s past prior to their meeting. Along the way he meets some interesting characters, forges some unlikely friendships, and slowly discovers that it is possible to be happy, or at the very least, content again.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper has a lot going for it. Arthur is a very likable guy. If fact, most of the characters are of an equally likable, upbeat sort. The story is pretty relatable in its essence. We’ve probably all learned things about a spouse or lover at one time or another that made us question how well we really knew that person. Arthur’s adventures help him to reconcile three versions of his wife; the wife he thought he knew, the (post-finding-the-bracelet-wife) he then questioned if he ever  knew at all, and finally, the “true” Miriam.

Unfortunately, there was something I found lacking that I’ve not been able to put my finger on after having reflected for a few days. I can only describe it as an inability to be excited or completely engaged. Perhaps it was a bit too predictable. Maybe it was the implausibility of some of Arthur’s adventures. While I appreciate why so many readers are giving such glowing reviews, I find myself unable to do likewise. There was nothing overtly wrong with the book. It just left me feeling a little flat.

3/5 stars

Thanks to MIRA via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Free Days with George: Learning Life’s Little Lessons from One Very Big Dog” by Colin Campbell

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Full disclosure: I own a Newf. Therefore, there was little to no chance this book was getting less than five stars no matter what. But I’m happy to say those five stars are well-deserved! I read this book in less than a day. It’s a fast-feel good read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Colin Campbell was a man who’d hit a rough spot in life. His wife, the love of his life, left him suddenly and with no explanation. Truly devastated, he buried himself in work and picked up a few bad habits. He was still having a great deal of difficulty moving on when, months later, a coworker suggested he get a dog. Fortunately for all involved, this coworker was quite persistent (a role I myself have played many times), pointing him to Petfinder to find his doggie love match. And there he finds Kong (a name change was obviously in his future), a one hundred forty pound Landseer  Newfoundland who’d had his own share of bad luck. Everything was about to change for both of them.

Without giving too many details of the story, I’ll say it’s a beautiful one, told with humor and honesty. The classic who-saved-who story that happens so frequently in rescue mixed with some very George/Colin-specific  elements that are quite unique! I thought I knew what a “free day” was but I’ll never again hear the expression without thinking of how it is defined in this book, as told to the author by his beloved grandfather. I highly recommend this book, especially to dog lovers.

And for those of you who are not fortunate enough to own an oofa-newf, and who may think the author is exaggerating in his telling of George’s compulsion to “save” everyone in the water, here is a little video of my girl Belle. (She’s ashamed of her short haircut so please, if you see her, don’t mention it.) In it she is “saving” Jerry, the Labrador Retriever who DOES NOT NEED SAVING. Labs, as you may know, are very competent swimmers. It’s a little long so if you want to fast forward, the “BIG RESCUE” comes at about 20 seconds prior to the end.

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Penguin Random House Canada, via NetGalley, for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of “Modern Girls” by Jennifer S. Brown

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Rarely, upon finishing a book, am I at such a loss for words. What I want to know is: Where is the rest of the book?  Modern Girls had the potential to be so much more…

Rose and Dottie, a Jewish mother and daughter living in 1930’s Manhattan, become pregnant at the same time. Neither is exactly thrilled to learn that they are in the family way. Rose is in her early 40’s and will soon regain some freedom as her youngest son begins his education. Dottie is unwed and running out of options.

There were some very interesting twists and turns of events. And a nice illustration of a pretty ideal mother-daughter relationship; not without some strife, of course, but with maximum love and loyalty. The relationship Dottie has with her brothers is also very touching. As I was nearing the end of the book, however, I became concerned that nothing seemed to be coming to any sort of conclusion. I thought perhaps there was going to be some sudden, drastic event that would wrap up all of the loose ends. Not so. If the end was intended to be a set-up for a sequel, it is still far too lacking. It needed a prologue at the very least. If I’d had to rate the book half way through, I would have given it 3.5/stars. Unfortunately, the ending was too disappointing to overlook.

2.25/5

I received a free copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “The A to Z of You and Me” by James Hannah

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This book filled me with a sense of bittersweet melancholy from start to finish. Ivo is a young man with diabetes who didn’t take very good care of himself and, as a result, his kidneys have failed and he’s in a hospice with (mostly) elderly people who are (mostly) dying of cancer. Throughout the book we learn the details of how he lost Mia, the love of his life. The story  of Mia and Ivo, which is slowly revealed, is certainly central but by no means all this book has going for it. It’s really a beautiful exploration of all types of relationships that complicate and make our lives whole. It’s also a more-than-gentle reminder that the choices we make today can have life-long effects on not just ourselves but those who love us.

My heart broke reading about Ivo’s mother and the way she cared for him. Having lost her husband to cancer when Ivo was just a boy, I found her love and sadness palpable. Though she is not mentioned frequently, I felt James Hannah did a fantastic job of bringing her character to life in a rich a meaningful way.

Another character that certainly deserves to be talked about is Sheila, Ivo’s nurse. I wonder if the author has spent time in a  hospital or perhaps has a nurse in his life as I’m a nurse by profession, and felt as though she could have been been a colleague at some point in my career. There’s a certain way to best take care of someone who is dying and it’s truly an art. Sometimes it’s best to leave someone to silence, sometimes it’s best to draw them out. There are times when distraction is a good tactic and times when the problem must be faced head on. Times when you are asked to muddle in business you really would prefer not to be involved in and times when you must gently and respectfully insert your nose in a place it may not belong under other circumstances. What I’m saying is that everyone should have a Sheila when the times comes…

As for Ivo’s  sister and circle of friends, I found them to be relatable. They provide influences that are times positive and, at times, not. They give good advice and bad. Probably not much different from friends we all have now and especially when we were young. It’s sometimes difficult, particularly in the case of Ivo’s friend Mal, (short of Malachy but interesting that mal means bad in French) to tell if they have malintentions or simply the selfishness and recklessness that are part and parcel of youth itself. In any event, suffice to say that friendships are tested.

Though there are lots of heavy topics and themes presented in this book, it’s beautifully written with wit and warm compassion. I look forward to seeing what James Hannah will come out with next.

4.5/5 stars

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.