In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper by Lawrence Block

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Pegasus Books

Short stories hold a power that longer works of fiction do not have the advantage of: they can pack a hard punch that’ll knock your socks off in mere minutes, spilling uplifting joy, heart-wrenching pain or newly provoked thought from readers all in one fell swoop. This, of course, is because they are so much more concentrated than their longer counterparts, doing away with excess prose and condensing the narrative arc into a matter of pages rather than chapters. For this reason, some of my favorite reads—the most thought-provoking and resonating reads—of all time have been short stories, and I sought this out here, within this collection, to continue that tradition for me. However, In Sunlight or in Shadow seemed prepared to offer up nothing but the latter, with the few glimmers of entertainment here so weak and sporadic that it was like the sun never quite pushed through the blinds.

Story after story were mind-numbingly dull and unmemorable. In reading through this anthology centered around the paintings of Edward Hopper (also featured within these pages before the start of each story written around them), I often felt like I was trudging through thick mud in search of that jewel that would glimmer brightly from beneath the sludge. It took me longer to finish this than it should have—than it could have—because I didn’t really want to pick it back up. But, alas, that is the magic with short story collections, isn’t it? You always feel that just around the next corner, with the next turn of the page, the next story might be the one. The next story might be enough to carry the entire collection—and so, you read on. But I never found anything magical in this compilation.

To be fair, Stephen King and Nicholas Christopher lightly touched on a literary nerve, and had this collection been filled with stories such as those, In Sunlight or in Shadow would’ve earned itself a far stronger rating from me indeed. But nothing truly moved or inspired me here. In truth, most of these stories took themselves far too seriously, as if the author’s identity or the mere fact that they’d proffered literary prose (rather than commercial plot lines) would alone carry the read, make me love it, make me keep turning pages. Well, Block, it wasn’t enough! Not by a long shot. I found most of these stories to be tedious and stuffy at best. No doubt, some teacher will find this collection and force it upon her high school English students, because it seems to exude the literary seriousness—gravitas, shall we say—requisite to be considered great. And no doubt the students will likely feel as I did.

My life has not been changed in reading this. Neither has my mind been stretched nor my imagination tested, my joy for reading stoked or my heart rate even quickened. In fact, the only thing that changed in reading this collection was my willingness to ever pick up anything else that Lawrence Block has ever laid a finger on. Will I dare? We shall see.

This collection has managed to earn the first 1.5 star review I’ve ever given—I could barely finish it, but somehow Stephen King’s “The Music Room” and Nicholas Christopher’s “Rooms by the Sea” saved it from complete engulfment by the yawning abyss. I have nothing else to even say about this collection, except that I need a good palette cleanser to start anew on something else. *

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Pegasus Books, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.



Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman

Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine offers an eclectic and thought-provoking survey into American culinary culture and palettes. She traces our culinary roots and, through professional and personal experience, as well as meticulous research, offers up the history of eight spices that can be found in modern American kitchens today. But where did these spices come from, and how did they become so commonly used in our culture? These are the questions that Lohman probes and explores, pointing out their place in our contemporary palettes as she goes.

Lohman diversifies the research she offers up with anecdotes of her own history with food—including the summers that she worked in an outdoor historical museum, making historically accurate dishes for audiences. With that, there’s something for everyone here in this survey on the American palette. Included within this book are also a slew of recipes so that readers can step back into history themselves, making this read as interactive as it is entertaining and informative. From historical unearthments to 200-year-old recipes heaped in historic truth, Lohman’s Eight Flavors is a read for true foodies and novice culinary explorers alike. 4 stars ****




The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

It’s funny how novels are often published in waves—we’ll see a flood of multi-cultural books, an influx of war novels or a deluge of high-school-centric reads at once, proving for those who don’t believe it already that books come in trends much like shoes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth instantly reminded me Everything I Never Told You (which I loved and rated highly) and of another new-release competitor and recent review, Everything You Want Me to Be see my review of it here, which will be published around the same time by a different publisher. But I’ll resist squaring them off in a boxing-like match and stick to Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel.

If The Most Dangerous Place on Earth had anything going for it, it was bite. Set outside of San Francisco, it was a setting that was like every chicly suburban town we’ve ever heard of—a town that reeks of wealth and privilege, kale smoothies and European SUVs. It is a place where teenagers wreck their BMWs and are utterly confused at the idea of poverty in Rwanda. In that way, Lindsey Lee Johnson used this setting as a springboard to explore the culture of privileged teens today, but also as the occasional trigger for insightful nuggets.

The format is a unique crossroad between short story collection and full-length novel, where Johnson takes turns telling the kids’ stories in 3rd person vignettes meant to give us glimpses inside their minds. Each vignette-type chapter tells part of one larger story, of which they are all a part of, and is then tempered by a chapter from the POV of Molly Nicholls, the 23-year-old 1st-year teacher who has the self-altering experience of teaching them all in English. This device can, of course, be great for offering us depth and insight, but here proved to be bad for readers who want to intimately know each character.

Why, you may ask?

Because you only get each student’s perspective for one chapter, never to hear from their voice or see their outlook again (hence the earlier comparison to a short story collection). At first I thought the novel would follow just the teacher into this dangerous habitat, or perhaps even the first student spotlighted in this book. That we’d follow them and settle into seeing and learning the world around them through their eyes. But the multi-vignette approach turned the tables on my expectations—not, in itself, a bad thing. Yet, I ended up torn on my opinion to this narrative tool: I loved being inside of all of their heads, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt (some more so than others), but the page count would’ve been better expanded so that the reader could really get to know each of the students better, because without that, it just read as a tease.

Likewise, the page count of this novel also proved to me something else: that too much of a good thing can, indeed, be bad. In that regard, I’m talking about Johnson’s narrative prose.

Don’t get me wrong: the descriptive prose of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel is lovely. But there is so much of it within this relatively small page count of 260 pages that the novel feels consumed by it, and the action feels slow-coming after the first few chapters, so much so that I found myself skimming past long descriptions of bus rides and in-home décor to get to the good stuff. Truly, the endless pages of descriptive prose would’ve been better placed in a longer book, in a book that had the room for such descriptions. But with only this many pages in which to get this story across—more than enough room to do it well; we’ve all seen it done before—it was allowed to take over and edge out insight and layer peeling, leaving me feeling that something was missing.

And then, of course, there’s that resonating feeling that all readers long to be left with. For some of us, it’s “feels,” for others “insight.” In reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, it always seemed that Johnson was on the verge of something great, brushing up against really thoughtful writing set against a sharp and intuitive peep into this teenage realm. She was almost there, but it never quite made it. Long chapters stretch out before you only to end with no kick, no umph or truly thoughtful nugget to hold on to. In the end, each chapter was just that, viewing the world through a high-schooler’s eyes (albeit, entertaining ones) with enough of a changed personality to be detectable, just the smallest dab of irony as to be discernible, but not a lot more than that.

Lindsey Lee Johnson offered up a sharp glimpse at this lifestyle, this culture, but then failed to really do much with it after that. With the short page count coupled with the fact that there was no zeroing in on any particular character—instead, a kaleidoscope of vignettes with brief connections and overlays with one another like criss-crossing tree branches in a breeze—I never really felt for any of these characters the way that I’d hoped. Maybe, with the better chapters, I felt that I understood them, if not knew them, because I’d just read a 30-40 page spread about them. But because I’d never see them again this intimately for the rest of the novel, I found that I didn’t really care about them or feel invested in their outcomes as I could have. The plot this author offered was a 10, yet the execution fell short of expectations, leaving The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an above-average read, that didn’t quite push far enough to gain 4 stars. 3.5 stars. ***


Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: January 3rd 2017 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This review contains spoilers, which are noted within.

There’s a lot to be said for being a teenager today. Of course, every era has its modern innovations and social expectations to contend with, but it’s rare that we get to see this from the inside looking out, through the eyes of a teenager living in the center of it all. What do they see and how do they feel about it? Does that societal pressure produce a diamond, as the saying goes, or does it crush us under the weight of its expectations?

Everything You Want Me to Be aimed to be that mirror for us, to shine a light in the dark recesses of the life of a teen-aged girl who was struggling to have and be it all, to exude perfection while finding what it was in life that mattered to her most. At any age, that’s a tall order, but Mindy Mejia’sEverything You Want Me to Be strives to take us there, to put us front in center in that girl’s shoes. However, I didn’t find it to be all that it was cracked up to be, and it wasn’t nearly all that I’d hoped.

The entire novel was about playing a part, pretending for onlookers and living a secret life that no one knows about, yet it didn’t delve deep enough to evoke any real feelings about it for me. Honestly, Miss Hattie Hoffman didn’t seem to be going through much more than the average city teenager, and the small-town aspect wasn’t brought to life nearly enough to truly juxtapose this in some startling way. And even that would have been completely fine if Hattie’s layers had been more defined, more fine-tuned, peeling deeper down. But I always felt that I was just skimming the surface of this girl behind the smile. She started out a Mona Lisa, and while we learn what she was thinking behind that sly smirk, true enough, I didn’t feel affected by the truths and realizations once Mona Lisa had been unwrapped. I didn’t feel the tension that the author was going for. The countdown to 18 seemed uneventful and rushed so that, when it came, I was underwhelmed and unimpressed for most of the read. The last fifth of the novel picked up, but it didn’t make the previous eighty percent feel especially worth it for me.

I recently said to someone, “It’s so true that we rate books based on how they make us feel, and how they make us feel is based off of our own life experiences,” and this is a novel that makes that statement truer than ever. Some will love following Hattie. They’ll find her particular brand of drama to be shocking and stimulating, but Everything You Want Me to Be didn’t go deep enough. It didn’t set Hattie apart from every other girl yearning to leave the small town and hit the big city. **SPOILER ALERT** Oh, and if you were planning on leaning on her love affair as that crutch that made her stand out, that it thing that made her different, try that somewhere else: that story’s too played to take us anywhere shocking now on its own. It wasn’t enough to make this a five-star read. **

What I will say is that Mejia did a good job of affecting a high schooler’s voice. Hattie came off as genuine; her voice was completely plausible. Her needs and desires totally matched that of a seventeen-year-old girl. But the other characters didn’t live up to their own potential. They were less well-rounded, affecting and impactful than they could’ve been by a long shot. Everything You Want Me to Besomehow managed to read both melodramatically and underwhelmingly simultaneously. Yet, in the background was a story that was decent. A story with an interesting premise that could’ve been richer, that could’ve been…more. The highs and lows melded together to end up being a bit blah with just a hint of salt to season it here and there.

I didn’t see the drama of the “fractured” pretender that Mejia was trying to paint. Instead, I saw a normal girl, written by the hand of an author who wants to assume that all kids are just kids, that they aren’t complex or individual in their own way, thus making Hattie some remarkable mystery (which, to me, she wasn’t). **Spoiler Alert** Except for the affair with her teacher, which has become almost less than a taboo with the shocking number of occurrences in the media these days, so that needed to be pushed further—made exceptional —to stand out as the shocker that it was intended to be.**

Maybe this novel should’ve been set in the 50s, so that the “innocent girl with a secret” plot would be more poignant.

The entire time that I read Mejia’s Everything, I could see where she was trying to take her reader; I just never quite got there. Often this novel was on the verge of being adrenaline-inducing, but it was always just shy of the mark for me, and for that I give 3 stars ***


White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Hardcover, 480 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Viking

“If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan…”

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is a kamikaze of research and hard-hitting assessments of our country’s attitude toward the “poor” and “shiftless” masses. It delves into the historical inaccuracies and missteps of a nation, our nation, and is a read to be savored and thoughtfully digested.

Isenberg commences from the stance that she is addressing the fallacious and glossed-over condition of class relations in the U.S., because many Americans (truly, the world) genuinely believe in America as a classless society of un-threatened upward mobility potential. Firstly, if there is, in fact, someone—anyone—out there who honestly believes that class relations don’t exist front and center in America then 1) you need to run and grab this book (and 10 more just like it immediately, now, on your lunch break even!) and 2) might I ask, “What rock have you been hiding under?”

Nancy Isenberg’s survey of American culture from Plymouth Rock to Sarah Palin offers something for everyone. Here she unravels history and popularized tales of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the “cracker” president, and even Pocahontas has her Disney-romanticized “diva” status stripped away and re-examined. Isenberg methodically tackles the rise and fall of the Confederacy, the eugenics craze that swept America for decades (still seen today in the form of modern-day dating websites such as eHarmony and, “The New Deal,” LBJ’s “Great Society” policies, desegregation and shifts in American culture that led to the rise of modern-day “white trash reality TV.” And while I did feel a bit leaden down with the dozens of pages of historical facts on these former presidents in Part I, when I was more interested in the meat of the argument, the task of setting the foundation for her argument was achieved and Part II onward flowed seamlessly. Historical documentation, photographs and illustrations also helped to set the scene and illustrate her assertions in a way that was easily digestible.

With White Trash, Isenberg demands us to ask ourselves, “What really is the American dream? Does it really exist? And if not, what truly stands in its stead?” These are the questions that you will explore, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. She offers some truly eye-opening observations and threads together the fabric of our American history into a full picture for readers to take a step back from and justly scrutinize. Within these pages, you’ll find humor and biting wit, punchlines that sink deeply into your psyche and assertions that are backed by meticulous research.

Isenberg takes a clear and definitive stance in White Trash, writing specifically from a poor-white-centric lens, and honestly, that really appealed to me. Thankfully, she strips away the politically correct, granola pedagogy that we Americans like to think of as good manners and gets straight to the point of her argument: that the idea of American classlessness is a fanciful notion that never truly existed, and that poor whites have always been a significant force at the center of the debate. From the annihilation of Native Americans to the freeing of slaves, poor whites have always factored in, in some way, to the persistent class struggle at hand.

For both those who feel securely aware of the condition of the world around us and for those not as confident in their versing of the historical foundation of the very American soil that we stand on, take a trip down this historical rabbit hole, because here you will find a detailed chronicle to expand upon your current understanding and opinions. You’ll find an analysis that is as ripe with raw insights as it is well-researched. Isenberg takes a blunt stance, a no-nonsense stance, and that always wins the day with me as long as the claims are buoyed in verity. She did that here, and her White Trash gained a strong 4 stars in the process. ****

*Thanks again to Viking for reaching out to me and sending me a hardcover copy of this book!


The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Paperback, 282 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Diversion Publishing

The Empress of Tempera is the tale of Paire Anjou, a 20-year-old Maine native running from her past turned art student in New York City. Two years after fleeing her traumatic upbringing, she has successfully reinvented herself and bagged a famous artist boyfriend, has landed a job at an art gallery and become obsessed with the gallery’s main attraction, a vivid painting by a Chinese artist whose flash of fame was all too brief and mysterious. In finding herself and understanding her obsession with The Empress, Paire becomes entangled in dangerous artistic heists and embroiled in uncovering the story of an artist shrouded in as much shadowy family history as Paire herself.

All in all, The Empress reminded me of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos more than I’d hoped to admit (I’ve also reviewed that novel here), the first half of the read at least. While I’m sure that some will call this unfair, to be honest, there was the same young woman running from her past, a painting that captivated her, a link between two distinctly different time periods and cultures. There were art galleries and soliloquys on brush stroke techniques and how the painting in question, the novel’s namesake, stood apart from others of its time period. Add to that a dash of danger, a few scenes of violence and a 20th century Chinese artist (rather than 17th century Dutch) and you’ve got yourself an Empress of Tempera.

But, sigh sigh sigh, the main thread that definitively connected these two reads in my mind was that Alex Dolan’s Empress also offered the same vaguely clinical tone narrating it all, like a nasally, monotone fly buzzing in my ear throughout. The characters were borderline flat, though I could tell that they weren’t intended to be so. They had motivations, but I didn’t always buy them, and even when I did, they weren’t as affecting, dramatic or climactic as they were meant to be by a long shot. Even the effect that the painting, The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated, had on its viewers, the very foundation for this novel, seemed manufactured, inauthentic.

It didn’t seem feasible that someone would stab themselves over that painting (view spoiler). Fainting at the painting’s feet. Swooning at the sight of it. Why? Is it foretelling the coming of Christ? Is it depicting a cultural phenomenon; has it become a Mecca-like beacon for radical jihadists? SOMETHING? No, it was just a portrait of a beautiful woman, seated. That’s it; that’s all. Show’s over folks. Nothing to see here. Nothing. It was just there. And I, in turn, was just bored.

The passively omniscient narrator’s voice sounded unmistakably amateur, guessing as to why the characters’ motives were what they were. “Paire suspected Kasson had chosen this time because he knew Mayer wouldn’t be there.” Every other page it was, “She suspected this.” “She probably did it because of this.” As a reader, I felt cheated of learning what made the characters tick, a novice mistake in a writer’s hand, if you ask me. “At this point Kasson must have understood that she was not going to help him.” Smh and the soul of writing slowly dies.

Dolan’s Empress was slow and arduous for the most part. And not particularly in a poignant, character-peeling sort of way either. There were a few times that I skimmed and several times that I considered putting her down. But, like a true reader, I just had to press on, to see if a turn would re-ignite my fire. You know, I just had to go into the haunted house, even though my subconscious was telling me not to. But it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. (Does that ever?)

I won’t even delve into how the artistic heists were all borderline pointless, definitely juvenile and founded on motives shaky at best. I won’t harp on how you could run a freight train through the plausibility of them. Five days to plan and execute a heist, really? You want me to believe that? I mean, I guess. And, yawn, the damaging family history that was the thread of mystery holding the story together ended up not being worth the hype. That was all? That was nothing! I myself know people who have been through worse than that!

So, with that in mind, I started to give The Empress 3 stars, to say that it was average. But it’s only fair that I stick to my grading scale, isn’t it? And this one didn’t quite make it into the “Liked” pile. Instead, I’ll give it a “Meh” and a half. 2.5 stars. **

Dante's Inferno

The Inferno: The Definitive Illustrated Edition, Dante Alighieri

Kindle Edition, 192 pages
Published June 22nd 2016 by Dover Publications

This edition of The Inferno offered visual artistry and a deeper understanding of this text. Dante’s Inferno has been on the must-read lists of schools and universities for decades, but this edition really brought it to life, both highlighting its wondrous darkness and magnifying the mystifying interpretation of hell, redemption and baptism by fire that Dante Alighieri painted for us all those centuries ago. However, I wish that the illustrations had included color. Color can work wonders that this one fell short of. Still, The Inferno is a classic and remains so.