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It’s All Good

Happy Ever After by Nora Roberts. From New York Journal of Books.

51gfDegqlHLRight from the start, you know what’s going to happen. The short paragraph on the back cover gives the ending away without saying it. Every lover of romance will instantly understand what the story is about, how the plot will unfold, and what will probably happen with the characters. In spite of the lack of mystery or suspense, millions of readers will devour it anyway. Why? Because it makes you feel good and takes you to a world where everyone meets the perfect mate, has a job they love, and engages in fantastic sex.

A little piece of the book’s best-selling author, Nora Roberts, seeps into the pages when Parker Brown (the main character) says the following about her parents: “The Browns worked. They built and they produced and never, never sat back to laze on accomplishment.” This line seems most apropos for Ms. Roberts, who has published 29 novels, 10 series (with 3 to 4 books in each), The Remember When Collection with J. D. Robb (with 30 titles), 11 anthologies, and has contributed to 7 other compilations. That is close to 100 works of the written word! Ms. Roberts either has a winning formula she pulls out of a hat to produce one title after another, loves writing and/or works her ass off, never stopping to “laze on accomplishment.” Perhaps it is a combination of all three.

Devoted voyeurs will not care what motivates the author, they will simply want to plunge into Happy Ever After and go for the ride with Parker Brown and her best friends Laurel, Emma, and Mac, as they start their wedding event business and look for love. Introduce the fiery, handsome, and unpredictable mechanic, Malcolm Kavanaugh, and you have the makings of a romantic dream come true. There are, of course, ups and downs, separations and coming back together, but the happy ending is never in doubt.

The book is like a Disney movie for grown-ups. The motherly cook to the girls, Mrs. Grady, has all the answers and insights one would expect for her years and having known and worked for the Brown family since Parker and her friends were all little girls; and the four girlfriends are always helping one another and understanding what the other needs, before they do themselves. At one point in the story, Parker sums up this pervading sentiment when she realizes, “Her family, everyone she loved and cherished, would soon be together. And that, she knew, was what made a home.”

There is no need to have read the previous titles in this series, The Bride Quartet. It stands well enough on its own. The work situations at Vow (Parker’s wedding company) seem spot on, and a painful experience from Malcolm’s childhood is beautifully conveyed. Much like Parker, who is the last to see that she is falling for Malcolm, you may find yourself halfway through the book before you realize that it has sucked you in for the ride, in spite of or perhaps because of, its predictability or undisguised happy climax. As Mrs. Grady says about her girl Parker, “The girl wants love, and with it the rest she grew up with; that kind of partnership, respect, friendship. She’ll never settle for less, and shouldn’t.”

For Nora Robert’s fans, Happy Ever After is a story that provides exactly what you want and expect in your relationship with her books. And for the few who are new to this genre or author, it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a copy and let yourself dream of all the good things to come.

Review of American Saint

51DSeMoivLLAmerican Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
Written by Joan Barthel
Reviewed by Gregory J. Wilkin
New York Journal of Books

“Characters like these, and scenes from the siege of New York, as well as the flirtation between Elizabeth and the handsome Antonio Filicchi, along with a very good death . . . all make this perfect fodder for a movie. It’s also perfectly suited to a book.”

Joan Barthel, whose earlier work dealt with murder cases in Connecticut and California that only an act of God could keep from turning into movies, seems to have a winner here with her timely and largely adulatory biography of Mother Elizabeth Seton.

After watching Meryl Streep’s despairing turn as Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and Barbara Jefford’s as the enragingly venomous mother superior in Judy Dench’s Philomena (as I’m confident He did, on a very big screen), Our Lord may want to get this book made into a movie Himself.

Publicity for the book emphasizes Seton’s wealthy upbringing, her political connections in the young republic, the sad tale of her husband’s early death in Italy, and the way she “resisted male clerical control of her religious order, as nuns are doing today.”

The life Barthels recounts counts in different ways for different folks: Maya Angelou in her foreword to the volume says “Seton’s life and achievements are proof that courage is the most important of all the virtues.”

True enough, Seton had to fight off the harshly overbearing Father Superior, John David, but in doing so, she worked closely with two other French priests and Bishop John Carroll. Courage it took, but to bill her as an early Catholic flouter-of-male-privilege is certainly to engage in a rather crass kind of book mongering.

In her introduction, Barthels situates her biography in the fraught context of the current administrative dispute about American nuns. The Vatican “doctrinal assessment,” which Sister Maureen Fiedler called on NPR “a hostile takeover,” will take five years to be prepared “and no one knows,” Barthels writes, “what will happen in the end.” In one of the least successful segues she pauses, indents, and gives us: “But Elizabeth Seton was there at the beginning.”

These beginnings bring out the best in our author: the early days in the Bayley family in New York are vivid and convincing, full of period detail and useful cultural background. As the young widow and mother takes her charges to Emmitsburg, the narration begins to rely on her letters, at one point quite a few of them rather wearily strung together. But some of this was heroic, loving effort by Seton herself, carried on despite fevers and worsening tuberculosis.

This is a lady who went through a lot. The accounts of the death of her daughters show her face to face with doubt:

“‘Eternity’ had long been her beloved word, her hope and belief. Now she was “uncertain of reunion.” She was kneeling at Anna’s grave when she saw a large, ugly snake stretching itself on the dried grass. Elizabeth was desolate, seeing Anna as ‘the companion of worms and reptiles! And the beautiful soul, where?’”

The takeaway here: doubt for the faithful, even for the saints, is one’s daily bread. Despite it all, Elizabeth Seton keeps her wits and her charm.

Read entire review and more at NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS

Transhumanist Novel

41uUKy0oEmLThe Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
4 February 2014

In-depth philosophical essays and visionary science dressed up as a novel.

If you enjoy philosophy, you’ll love this book. If you’re a science geek you’ll read every word. If you are religious, spiritual, or into the supernatural, you’ll probably dismiss it, misunderstand it, and/or hate it.

Author Zoltan Istvan has taken a thinly disguised autobiography and transformed it into an almost plausible new world thriller that tends to go overboard on pontification and argument by the protagonist Jethro Knights, who becomes the mover and shaker of the Transhumanist movement and literally changes the entire world.

Istvan notes on the last page, “This story, The Transhumanist Wager, is the result of two decades of thought and inquiry into transhumanism and the quest for scientific immortality. I wrote it hoping to change people’s ideas of what a human being is and what it can become.”

A Transhumanist is someone who believes that the human race can evolve beyond its current limitations and can do so by means of technology and science.

The book has its moments. The love story between Jethro Knights and neurosurgeon Zoe Bach is believable and the action sequences in the book are top notch. The philosophy, debates, insights, and vision included in these pages are thought provoking and challenging, as are the observations about the clashes between religious fanatics and fundamentalists and those who believe in science, progress, choice and technology.

From a strictly literary perspective The Transhumanist Wager is nothing more than a collection of in-depth philosophical essays and visionary science dressed up as a novel. There are too many abrupt changes, events, and conclusions taking place in unrealistic periods of time without much depth or nuance to completely engage the reader.

Read entire review and others at NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS

What She Left Behind

61bLHO4EiELWhat She Left Behind
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
12 December 2013

“What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding.”

She’s done it again. At this time last year, Ms. Wiseman’s first novel The Plum Tree was released. It was excellent and received deservedly wonderful reviews. It is rare that a writer’s follow up work is as good as their first. Such a rarity has been accomplished with What She Left Behind. The author has once again delved into the lives of teenage girls, albeit in different circumstances than her first work, yet with the same insight, nuance, and raw emotion readers can appreciate and enjoy.

One of the girls in the story is 18 and is living in the 1930s (Clara) and the other (Izzy), lives in the 1990s. Clara is sent to a state mental institution (Willard State), because she challenges her father’s wishes for whom she should marry and Izzy must adapt to a new set of foster parents and her last year in high school, as a result of her mother having killed her father when she was seven. The girls’ lives intersect when Izzy gets involved in a project that unearths suitcases in the now defunct mental institution in which Clara was captive—she finds Clara’s journal and photo inside.

The scenes of Clara’s experience and travails at Willard State are all too real and affecting in part because many similar circumstances actually took place at that mental facility and others around the country for many decades. Izzy’s struggle with a school bully, harming herself, and learning who and how to accept love and whom to trust, is no less impactful than Clara’s chapters.

What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding of human behavior and what can and has been done to others to maintain control.

Read entire review and more at New York Journal of Books.

Superb Story and Scribe

0670026638.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books

“Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is one of the best novels of 2013—and will surely inhabit that position for years to come.”

However you envision or conceptualize life, you will never see it quite the same once you’ve read this brilliant story. “Brilliant” is a strong and suggestive superlative, but it fits this story like the insistent tolling of a bell calling for one’s attention.

Down to earth and intellectual. Filled with judgments and acceptance, separateness and interdependence. Complicated, yet simple. Ms. Ozeki’s characters question their thoughts, feelings, and actions—even how they respond to suffering. They ask whether their choices and lives make a difference, what is the meaning of conscience, and how to explain the nature of existence—and they do so in the pages of a beautiful tale of families struggling to survive, understand, and share their love.

Ruth, a novelist who lives on an island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver, happens upon a diary she finds in a sealed lunchbox she discovers among some kelp that’s washed to shore. The diary is that of a sixteen year old in Tokyo, Japan, named Nao.

As Ruth begins to read the diary—which describes Nao’s family, her thoughts of suicide, and her close connection with her 104-year-old great grandmother Jiko (who is a Buddhist nun living in the area of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami)—we are pulled into Ruth’s thoughts and feelings about what she is reading as well as its impact on her, her husband, and others living on the island.

Every person, animal, life form, building, city, town, and forest in this story feels real and congruent. You can almost reach into the book and pet the cat, yell at the bullies, shake Nao’s father, hear the wind, see the crow take flight, and feel the ancient, chilly, wooden temple floor beneath your knees as you bow.

There are so many exquisite lines of prose within A Tale for the Time Being, that it is difficult to choose a few that will give readers’ a taste of this sweet, caustic, entertaining, and captivating novel. Nonetheless, here are a few morsels.

When Ruth first reads the diary, she describes the letters. “They were round a little bit sloppy (as she now imagined the girl must be, too), but they stood more or less upright and marched gamely across the page at a good clip, not in a hurry, but not dawdling, either.”

Nao writes of a moment when she is holding Jiko’s hand. “I was still thinking about what she said about waves, and it made me sad because I knew that her little wave was not going to last much longer and soon she would join the sea again, and even though I know you can’t hold on to water, still I gripped her fingers a little more tightly to keep her from leaking away.”

Ruth speaks of time and how it interacts with attention. “At the other extreme, when her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like pixels, diffused and suspended in standing water.”

It sounds like Haiku poetry when Jiko is telling Nao about her son (Nao’s great uncle) who died in World War II. “A single frog croaked, and then another. Jiko’s words dropped like stones into the silence in between.” Jiko explains to Nao (who had told Jiko about it feeling like there were fish flopping around in her stomach when she felt grief or was being bullied) that the loss of her son was like a whale in her gut and she was learning to open her heart so the whale could swim away.

A Tale for the Time Being is more than a lovely piece of literature; it also explores science, philosophy, nature, history, psychology, biology, physics, Japanese culture, and the nature of consciousness. There is also a healthy dose of Buddhism and meditation thrown in with subtle precision integrated into the characters and storyline without dissemblance or force.

Read complete review and others, at New York Journal of Books.

Move Over New York Times

New York Journal of Books

The New York Journal of Books (NYJB) is the only reviewing journal that releases reviews on the same day as a book is released. The NYJB is giving the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and other well-known reviewing venues a run for their money (and readers).

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The New York Journal of Books reviewer panel consists of a growing team of talented and experienced reviewers whose expertise and credentials are unique among exclusively online book reviews. This panel includes bestselling and award-winning authors, journalists, experienced publishing executives, tenured academics, as well as highly experienced professionals across a number of disciplines and industries. All bring highly relevant expertise and insight to their reviews. Each reviewer writes about books with a singular, unique voice. Together, this chorus is New York Journal of Books’ singular strength. NYJB’s catalog of reviews has far more in common with respected print reviews than with any other online-only review. In a world where print book reviews are in rapid decline, NYJB aims to preserve the tradition of excellence in book critique. At the same time, NYJB embraces the rich multimedia content that cannot be found in a print publication, providing a singularly rich book selection experience.

Read the respected and relevant reviews at the New York Journal of Books and see what books and stories catch your attention.

White Dog Fell from the Sky

White Dog Fell from the Sky: A Novel by Eleanor Morse
New York Journal of Books. 3 January, 2013
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans

0670026409.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_“. . . a satisfying, savory dish that should be served alongside the best in contemporary multicultural fiction.”

There are not enough adjectives to describe the strength of this story.

Eleanor Morse has written a character driven novel with character. White Dog Fell from the Sky has a life of its own that blends reality, insight, observation, and nuance with such ease and grace you forget you are reading.

Two of the main characters, Isaac Muthethe and the white dog, are immediately dropped into reader’s laps with perfect clarity and timing. Their circumstances and environment can be absorbed and felt, as though you are inside Isaac’s skin as he lifts himself up from the dusty Botswana road.

At its core, White Dog Fell from the Sky is a powerful story of love – love of a person, a people, a land and living with purpose. It involves a medical student (Isaac) who must flee apartheid infested South Africa in 1976, after he witnesses his friend’s murder at the hands of the South African Defense Force and the American woman, Alice Mendelssohn, who he befriends in Botswana. Alice followed her husband to Africa and works for the Botswana government.

When Isaac goes missing, her marriage disintegrates and a new love comes into her life, Alice abandons all pretext, while Isaac tries desperately to save the rest of his family and himself, from the terror, torture, shame and killing in his homeland.

The novel’s insight into land, people, relationships, culture and political realities is superb. It is easy to identify with many people in the story, including Isaac and Alice, regardless of one’s personal background or home of origin. The Africans and Europeans who populate the pages are honest embodiments of fellow human beings we have all known—fragile, strong, abusive, kind, and complicated.

Each individual has his view of the world shaped by his experiences and expectations. When Isaac describes his “friend” Amen, who is working with the African National Congress (ANC) in Botswana and Angola, he sees “. . . an ancient injury living side by side with arrogance. Menace, the child of the union.”

Alice and her marriage are described as, “You could see their hearts were not beating together, the blood in their veins wanted to flow toward different oceans.” Alice realizes that, “She and Lawrence had slid into each others lives in simple, naive faith.”

Eleanor Morse’s story is emotionally riveting, heartbreaking, and at times unbearable, while simultaneously embracing hope, insight, and a sense of perpetual mystery.

Each sentence is more beautiful than the last. Some aspects, such as the mutual respect and understanding that develops between Alice and Isaac, are similar in its depth and ambition to the literary masterpiece by Alan Patton and his characters in Cry, the Beloved Country.

Read entire review and others at New York Journal of Books.

The Plum Tree

The Plum Tree
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
24 December, 2012

“. . . deserves a bright spotlight on the literary stage . . .”

0758278438.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_Seventeen-year-old Christine Bolz works as a domestic for the Bauermans in a small German Village.

Christine and the Bauerman’s son, Isaac, have just revealed their love for one another when the world is turned upside down. It is 1938. Christine and her mother are banned from working for the Jewish family. Everyone is threatened, suspected or arrested by the Nazi regime. How do Christine, Isaac and their families fare when the worst that can happen happens?

Author Ellen Marie Wiseman’s provocative and realistic images of a small German village are exquisite. One can almost taste, smell, and see the surroundings and hear the voices of the characters as they speak to one another and to themselves.

When Christine is told she can no longer see Isaac, her reactions are described as, “Now, the sparse room reflected the way she felt, bone-cold and empty as a cave, the cool drafts of the coming winter already making their way through the invisible crevices in the fieldstone and mortar walls and the undetectable cracks in the thick, dry timber.”

After experiencing extreme desolation and deprivation, Christine’s senses are overwhelmed. “It surprised her, and she had to catch her breath before she choked on the joy of something so simple and delicious.”

Everything is out of control. Christine is soon faced with life and death decisions on a daily basis. What she decides to do (or not do) has rippling effects on everyone she cares for. In some respects, as is often true in war; even the illusion of choice and routine provides a sense of comfort and solace.

Christine makes the mental note about her mother. “But she knew why her mother had gotten up. Her household was the one thing she could control… the only way she knew how to deal with her unpredictable life.” The Plum Tree is itself, graciously laced with uncertainty and an air of unknowing what will befall the families and who will or will not survive (physically and/or emotionally).

There are portions of this novel that will remind readers’ of Schindler’s List, the difference being that few in this story are saved. There are no heroes, only survivors.

Although nothing is held back in chronicling the gruesomeness of the Holocaust, the bombing of Germany, and the suffering that millions endured, The Plum Tree also exudes a sense of faith in one’s family, truth and humanity.

Its attention to historical detail is to be appreciated, yet these details do not trump the core of the tale, which is both a story about enduring love and the suffering unleashed by Hitler’s mania.

Read complete review and others at the New York Journal of Books.

A Walk Across the Sun

A Walk Across the Sun
by Corban Addison
Released 3 January 2012
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
22 August 2012

A Walk Across the Sun

“A Walk Across the Sun is the kind of literature that should be celebrated and honored.”

True crime meets literary fiction with a powerful kick to the stomach and the opening of the heart.

Lawyer and human rights activist Corban Addison steps astutely and brazenly into the writing world, delivering a story that navigates cross-cultural romance, family devotion, grief, loss, and modern day slavery into an exciting, disturbing, and provocative tale about surviving the impossible and believing beyond hope.

Two Indian teenage sisters (Ahalya and Sita Ghai) have their world literally washed away when their entire family is killed by a tsunami and they are sold as sex slaves to a man in Bombay.

Just when you think their lives cannot get any worse, they do. Thomas Clarke’s life as an up and coming lawyer in Washington D.C. is falling apart with the recent death of his daughter and his Indian wife Priya, leaving him alone and returning to India.

The way in which these characters’ lives eventually intersect and how their perspectives on life and death evolve are entirely believable in A Walk Across the Sun.

Nothing in this story feels contrived or out of place.

Each character struggles to survive the circumstances they find themselves in. Ahalya and Sita have no control over or voice in what happens to them, but Thomas and Priya are privileged with both choice and the means to manifest their deepest intentions—once they have figured out what those intentions are.

Though Ahalya and Sita are bought and sold for sex (as are thousands of girls and boys throughout the world), it is clear that it is about violence, control and profit. Sex is the conduit by which those that buy and sell others make their money.

By contrasting the love story between Thomas and Priya, the unbreakable devotion and tenderness between the sisters, and those engaging in sex for personal pleasure and profit, Mr. Addison distinctly defines and shows readers the difference between love, passion, and compassion versus sex for sex’s sake (at the expense of another’s wellbeing), without exhibiting any need to delve into a philosophical or theoretical discussion.

There is no ambiguity about rape and the use of the young for profit. Rape is rape.

It is a rare find to discover a work of fiction opening readers’ eyes to an existing horror with such precision and insight. A Walk Across the Sun is such a story.

Providing a treasure chest of prose, culture, nuance, insight, despair, and hope, A Walk Across the Sun is the kind of literature that should be celebrated and honored.

Don’t let this gem slip through your fingers. It will affect you long after you’ve read the last word.

Read more of Gabriel’s reviews at New York Journal of Books.

Three Strong Women

Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye
Review by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books

These stories torment readers with the possibilities and unfulfilled potential . . .

Three Strong Women is tormenting. Its characters are tormented, their lives are tormented, and some of the writing linguistically torments readers with its languid, insightful, and idiosyncratic nuances of internal dialogue and character description.

Three Strong Women is good, bad, and indifferent, as are Norah, Fanta, and Khady, its three antagonists. The story takes place in three parts or acts. Each story lands us inside the head of one of these Senegalese women.

The title is somewhat misleading for these women are not strong, in a traditional sense—in body, mind, or spirit—but are strong in self-doubt, remorse, and hopelessness.

Long wandering sentences and stories within and of themselves are not necessarily a trait of all African writers, but tend to dominate much of the language, as it does with Ms. NDiaye’s, even though she was raised in France and now lives in Germany.

Here is a brief and—believe it or not—a brief example. When Norah is visiting her father’s home in Senegal:

“She found herself adopting the tone of peremptory volubility that she never used with anyone but her father, the tone intended to forestall his attempt to have Masseck, and before Masseck Mansour, do what she insisted on doing herself, insisted out of an awareness that he so hated seeing his guests perform the slightest labor in his house, thereby casting doubt on the competence of his servants, that he was quite capable of saying to her, ‘Masseck will wash your hands for you,’ without for a moment imaging that she would fail to obey him as those around him, young and old, had always done.”

This first section about Norah sounds the most autobiographical in its tone, though there is no indication that it has any resemblance to the author’s personal life.

Norah is urgently asked by her father in Senegal to leave her home in France and come immediately, without any explanation. She does so reluctantly and is caught up in a family drama involving her brother that plays out and comes to an abrupt end, as if everyone is at peace with the situation, though nothing could be further from the truth.

It is the truth of Norah’s loathing for her father that shines most brightly from this story.

The second story is about Fanta and her boyfriend, Rudy, whom she follows to France. The emotional and intellectual complexities that are portrayed in this chapter are quite astonishing, but often feel as if they are being told instead of shown. The internal thoughts and messages we indulge in in response to our environment or previous experiences and memories, are superbly revealed through the minds of Fanta and Rudy, but soon override any external sense of action, reaction, or movement. Thus the internal dialogue grows tedious and self-absorbed.

In this section of the story, Rudy feels inadequate, out of touch, and incompetent, taking out his self-loathing on Fanta. His remorse for his words and actions then adds to his low self-esteem. His selfishness and immersion in his internal world make it difficult to connect with his character or have any empathy for his sense of isolation, even though his feelings of emptiness and loneliness are palpable.

In the final story, Khady must deal with the loss of her husband and family and endure nightmarish predicaments and experiences. She tells herself that she is “still Khady” in spite of all that takes place, but what remains of who she is has literally been stripped bare. What little sense of self that existed at the beginning of her story, has been ripped away by the end.

There is a rare moment of hope and happiness when, “She was herself, she was calm, she was alive, she was still young, and she was in excellent health; every fiber of her being was savoring the kindly warmth of the early-morning sun, and her twitching nostrils gratefully sniffed the salty air blowing in off the sea . . .”

What all the women (and men) in Three Strong Women have in common is a lack of faith or belief in who they are. They each see themselves as inadequate, inconsequential and/or emotionally injured and are unable to be truly loved or thus love another.

No one really comes into his or her own power or feels complete and whole. The stories tell tales and let us know what people are thinking and feeling, but there is little progression, change, or insight with the characters.

There is no salvation. Everyone is doomed to live life as it is. In some respects, this is refreshing and realistic, but readers usually read in order to be taken out of our quotidian monotony, not for immersion in the minds of characters who have accepted the hopelessness of life as it is.

These stories torment readers with the possibilities and unfulfilled potential to which they could have aspired.

Read this and other excellent reviews, on the same day a book is released, at New York Journal of Books.

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