Intriguingly different novel – a surrealistic nightmare in the most mundane of settings.
John’s description: Neil Double has an unusual job. He is a conference surrogate, attending industry conferences on behalf of his clients so that they don’t have to. He attends events for them, picks up all of the relevant material, talks to people they should have talked to, and reports back to them on things that they should have learned - all the while hiding the fact that he is a surrogate. He spends his life travelling and staying at mid-range hotels located in business parks and exhibition centers. In particular he ends up spending an inordinate amount of time in Way Inns, a huge hotel chain with locations all around the world.
While attending a conference for conference organizers at the recently erected MetaCentre exhibition complex, he stays in a brand new Way Inn hotel situated next door to the complex in the middle of what is essentially a series of large building sites. While things start out as they normally do for Double, in short order things start to go awry. He once again meets a woman that he met in very unusual circumstances at a previous event. He is then “outed” by one of the conference organizers who hates the fact that conference surrogates are eating into his business and enabling potential attendees to stay away. He then finds himself banned from the event and unable to get away from the Way Inn.
Then the rather strange woman starts to hint at something weird and astonishing about the mundane hotel chain. In turns attracted, puzzled, bemused and scared, Double finds himself increasingly drawn into the Way Inn. But he also comes to realize that there may be no way out.
John’s thoughts: This was a bit of a slow starter but then really drew me in – a pacing and style which I suspect was intended. First you get to learn about a professional conference attendee who is attending a conference about the conference business, which is being held at the aptly named MetaCentre. But this is not quite as dull as it may sound, as Wiles writing has a nice sly humor to it and some of his observations are sharp.
After a while the story gradually starts to twist and turn, then develops some nicely surreal aspects before descending into a sinister nightmare. Imagine the movie Up In the Air mixed with the song by the Eagles Hotel California and a liberal sprinkling of H.P. Lovecraft – stir the three together and you end up somewhere near to The Way Inn.
I have to say that it was a combination that I liked. It did feel just a tad too slow in places, but the surprises and novelty of the story kept me engaged. Who’d have thought – a surrealistic horror story about the conference business? It worked for me. I’d rate this four stars and recommend it to anyone who likes stylish and subtle horror stories or who likes to try something a bit different. And have you had the “pleasure” of attending a lot of business conferences? If so, you may find this an entertaining read. ...more
A wonderful, engaging historical fiction novel that has the science of botany as a key element. It has anOriginal review posted on Layers of Thought.
A wonderful, engaging historical fiction novel that has the science of botany as a key element. It has an amazing strong female character and an encompassing theory on the nature of all things.
Description: When Alma Whitaker is born in Pennsylvania, USA in the year 1800, her exceptionally wealthy British father Henry is pleased. Alma will be his only natural child, will receive an education uncommon for women, and will want for almost nothing for her entire life. Alma is not a beautiful woman, but her strengths lie in her brilliant scientific mind and her excellent constitution. She spends her childhood days categorizing plants and reading in her father’s huge library. As an adult Alma becomes one of the first women to publish within the field of botany.
This is the richly imagined life story of Alma Whitaker, her driven father whose interest and dedication to botany build him a fortune, and her stalwart and complex family. It is set relatively soon after the American Revolution, during the civil war, and while the theory of evolution was taking form.
Thoughts: There’s a lot to like about this book. From the very start it becomes apparent that Elizabeth Gilbert is an expert story teller. I was entirely swept away with writing that flows and that captured me from the first page until the last. I particularly like that the characters are well developed and complex with a lot of back story. The book also has some famous historical characters which adds to the richness of the story line - such as Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook, who where significant contributors to science and botany - giving the book an authentic historical feel. There are some interesting settings within the novel which may intrigue readers, such as Kew Gardens, a botanical garden in London established in 1756 that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Tahiti, where the author goes into a good deal of depth about the culture and the setting.
As the title suggests one of the book’s major themes is a grand sweeping theory about the nature of humans and life in general, and since it is one that I agree with it made me like the book even more. My only quibble would be a strong and slightly embarrassing sexual thread that runs through the novel, which was a bit much for me. If this particular element had been a little lighter the book would have rated higher in my opinion. However, it’s a terrific novel and comes highly recommended. I would say one of my favorites this year at 4.5 stars. ...more
Shellie’s quick take: Mainstream fiction with a separate storyline that is speculative in nature. This isOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
Shellie’s quick take: Mainstream fiction with a separate storyline that is speculative in nature. This is a subtle page-turner that has a heartrending story juxtaposed with a narrative about a comic-book superhero called Comrade Cosmos.
Shellie’s description: When 18 year old Jeremy Soto’s single mother is murdered by a young male tourist during a solo vacation to Mexico, his grief is understandable, but as horrible as he feels he must pick up the pieces of his life. But it’s not just Jeremy who has to get past the violent death of his mother Melinda; there are others who are reeling from her loss - Melinda’s close circle of friends, mature characters who have life complications of their own. Then there is the murderer’s mother Anna who has the heartbreaking job of dealing with her son’s suicide as well. All of this culminates when Anna invites Jeremy and Melinda’s friends to her son’s funeral.
What gives this book an interesting twist is that the subjects addressed in the main story are contrasted with those of a popular comic-book series, which are covered in alternating chapters.
Shellie’s thoughts: This is an unusual book and it has a deep message. It examines the roles of chaos and order in the world, with the author questioning the effects of trauma and hardship on characters. In so doing she attempts to answer the question: what do we do with an impossible situation, one that we cannot fix or change? With that in mind Mending the Moon pulls in issues such as loss through death, divorce, and Alzheimer's, contrasted with friendship, responsibility, love, forgiveness, and moving through grief. This leaves a lot of room for emotional content in the book and the author uses the space very well.
It is highly recommended, with its well-developed characters and rare-to-see main female characters aged 60-years plus. I think it would be a good selection for a book group since there are many issues that can be discussed. It’s also a perfect read if you’re interested in superhero comics or character-driven emotional novels that pull you in and keep you reading. I read this book in a matter of days – a rarity for me. 4.25 stars.
**A note which may be a plus or a minus to some readers: there is a Christian element running through the novel. Several of the main characters are clergy and church services play a big role in many of the scenes. However, the subjects addressed in the book are universal and, as a person who is not religious, I would say that it is done well and didn’t put me off....more
A madcap caper set in the unlikely location of Silicon Valley – an ordinary guy tries to cash outOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
A madcap caper set in the unlikely location of Silicon Valley – an ordinary guy tries to cash out while everyone else seems determined to try and stop him.
John's thoughts on what it's about: Dan Jordan thinks he’s a pretty ordinary guy – an ex-journalist who happened to find himself working as a speechwriter for the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup. The company grows like gangbusters and Dan’s stock options become worth over a millions dollars. But he has to be still employed by the company on the day when his stock becomes eligible for cashing out; and now he is counting down the last few days.
He despairs about the Silicon Valley culture and lifestyle/work-style; he really doesn’t fit in and dreams of using the money to drop-out with his wife, hoping to move to the California coast and to live a life they’ve always wanted. He just has to hold on for those last few days.
The trouble is that there is an ever-growing mob of people who seem to be doing everything possible to stop him reaching that milestone – including a gang of nerdy IT kidnappers, a muscle-bound corporate security hit-man, ultra-competitive “colleagues” and a long list of others I can’t describe without spoiling the plot. Contrastingly, in theory Dan has helping him out a sociopathic neighbor and a friend from school days who happens to be a professional cage-fighter. Funny thing is that at times it sure doesn’t feel to Dan like they are helping him at all.
Meanwhile his marriage is in danger of crumbling and he cannot recover from a simple medical procedure which becomes ever-more embarrassing and painful during this stressful romp. Nevertheless, he just has to hold on for a last few days!
John’s summary thoughts: This is a light-hearted easy read, very much in the style of a farce where everything that can go wrong seems to do so; and then some. Bardsley creates some delightfully whacky characters, my favorite being the totally gross guy who is a lodger with the sociopathic neighbor; and the neighbor himself is a fabulously weird creation. As for the main character himself, you certainly start out feeling highly supportive of Dan, though as the story progresses and one crazy dilemma follows after another follows after another, the plot becomes so far-fetched that I stopped thinking of him as a real character and just went along for the humorous ride.
Is Silicon Valley really like this? Well, Bardsley has “done his time” there, having worked as a speechwriter and ghostwriter for Executives, much like Dan Jordan – so he has certainly used his real-life experience as a launching pad for this story and the characters in it. Exaggerated? Of course, but that’s what makes it fun.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes a bit of modern slapstick or to those who have worked in the tech industry and enjoy poking fun at some of the odd characters and culture found there. I’d rate this light-hearted read three stars. ...more
Look past the cover to find a down-to-earth, mildly spiritual (Catholic), yet contemporary look into the lOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
Look past the cover to find a down-to-earth, mildly spiritual (Catholic), yet contemporary look into the life a commitment-phobic middle aged male nurse. When he finds himself “home” for the first time in 20 years he is forced to decide what is truly important to him. With strong threads containing mental illness and disabilities, internal and external conflicts, sweet humor and more - it’s one of my favorite “uplifting” reads of the past year.
About: Sean is a nurse who has spent most of his adult life in areas of the planet where there are more people than resources. Places where people are grateful for what little help a medical professional can give them even if it’s only a little more time to live. Sean has chosen this hard yet satisfying life because he is running from internal demons - a fear that he has inherited a nasty form of dementia called Huntington's disease. Sean doesn’t want to know if he has the disease, refuses to be tested for it, and has “a plan” once the symptoms begin to appear.
When he receives a letter from his sister while still working in Africa, she directly states she needs him to return to take on his share of their family responsibilities. So he does, but not entirely based upon the letter. It appears the fates have conspired to bring him back home since he’s completely burned out and his back is aching so badly - so back to Boston it is.
Needless to say things are not the most functional with his family. There are A LOT of complications. His aunt (the family Matriarch) is loosing her memory, his sister deserves some of the freedom he’s enjoyed over the years (she too may have the disease) and she is resentful. But the most significant “complication” is his pre-teen nephew, who is in a precarious transitional period, and in desperate need of support. And then there’s the dog.
Thoughts: This was a rewarding and slightly funny read with its real-life aspects that takes the tone from sweet to unsentimental. There are the shocking parts about nursing in a third world country, and dealing with the devastation of dementia, abandonment, alcohol abuse, and childhood psychological disorders. This book is a real mix of true-to-life problems with complex emotions and entanglements associated with them. But they are handled seriously and with a soft touch by the author.
The story has a mild element containing Catholicism. Appropriately so, since the main character - Sean’s da/dad - is from Ireland. And since the characters are of Irish decent there is also a fun part where several of the characters take a trip to Ireland. This may intrigue many readers and I enjoyed it quite a lot.
But I think the best part of this story are the characters. They are complex, well developed and mostly likeable; even the prickly ones, giving a literary feel to the novel. It’s being marketed as women’s fiction (look at the cover), but it’s more than that. I can say that men may enjoy this novel too if they can get beyond its cover’s femininity, and its obvious design for attracting women. Publishers have to sell books and women buy the most.
Just a few mild complaints - The Shortest Way Home is another one of those reads where there is a light romantic element which was slightly too “mushy” for me, and also several of the sex scenes left me with a misplaced guffaw (not my favorite reaction for a “romantic interlude”). However, it was an engrossing and entertaining read. I devoured it in a few days and give it a 4-star rating. ...more
A mini family epic set against the backdrop of the California Bay Area, jazz and soulThis review by John is originally published at Layers of Thought.
A mini family epic set against the backdrop of the California Bay Area, jazz and soul music, and changes in local society. The story even manages to embrace kung fu, Blaxploitation movies and the Black Panther movement!
About: Brokeland Records is a store on Telegraph Avenue on the border of Berkeley and Oakland, specializing in used vinyl and focused on jazz and soul music. Run by two long-time buddies, Nat (who is white) and Archy (who is black), the store is so much more than a record shop – it’s a multi-cultural center of gravity for many locals who gather there, chew the fat, and generally hang out. While it always totters on the edge financially, it is very much a labor of love for the music-loving Nat and Archy.
They are also bound together outside of Brokeland, as their wives are both midwives and are partners in Berkeley Birth Partners, which over the years has helped many hundreds of local women to give birth in their own homes – much to the chagrin of some local doctors who want to see all births take place within hospitals.
Now their bumpy, somewhat chaotic but somewhat steady lives are rocked on several fronts. An ex-NFL star, who is the fifth richest black man in the US, is planning on opening a megastore on Telegraph Avenue which would almost certainly mean doom for Brokeland Records; Berkeley Birth Partners is faced with legal action and professional ruin; Nat’s fragile teenage son falls in love with an itinerant black boy who turns out to be Archy’s long-lost (and never acknowledged) son; and an eccentric man, who is the closest thing to a real father that Archy ever had, unexpectedly dies. Can’t get any worse? Then Archy’s real father turns up – he’s a total deadbeat who used to be a kung fu expert and starred in third-rate Blaxploitation movies, and he’s after something.
John’s thoughts: This is a heck of a book – an interesting story, a complex many-threaded plot, many dashes of wry humor, and some well-constructed and complicated characters. The main characters are by no means perfect – they have all too many human flaws, but you can’t help liking them (mostly) and you do want things to end up well for them.
Chabon is clearly someone who knows the Berkeley/Oakland area well and has a deep affinity for it. He includes lots of local detail and color, and clearly has fears and hopes about how the area is developing. Likewise he must be a huge fan of the music that Brokeland Records sells, and the book has a multitude of musical references. Actually, I did find that sometimes the deep attachment to the location and the music got in the way a bit – as some of the references and colloquialisms were a bit lost on me.
I like the way that Chabon brings in lots of different plot elements, including local politics, cultural tensions, family/generational tensions and (even!) the Black Panther movement. These are all intertwined with the main storylines, and it gives the book an almost epic feel.
A word on the writing style – at times I found the wording and syntax tough, and had to re-read many of the sentences. This got easier as I progressed through the book, but it did slow me down and didn’t help with the pacing. Nonetheless, I’d rate this four stars and recommend it to anyone who likes to read meaty novels about complex family and social tensions, especially those with a musical and multi-cultural backdrop. ...more