Review: “Diary of a Beatlemaniac” by Patricia Gallo-Stenman

When Patricia Gallo was thirteen, the Beatles hit the shores of America, and they arrived with a flash and a bang. Legendary Philly DJ, Hy Lit, was instrumental in getting the Fab Four overseas and into the local music hall. Patty and her “Beatle Buddies” quickly become immersed in the cult around the band, writing letters on the boys’ behalf to less-than-favorable reviewers, founding a fan club, sneaking off to movies and gigs, and even befriending actor Victor Spinetti, who appeared alongside the Liverpudlians in all three of their live action films.

When I was thirteen, the Beatles were well beyond broken up, and John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his home in New York City. Instead of the Beatles, I had Depeche Mode. But thanks to my Beatles-loving father, an enthusiasm, nay, almost an obsession for their music had been instilled in me when I was a nipper. For me, it was very exciting to be able to follow Patty’s Beatles experience via the diary excerpts, newspaper articles, and interviews presented in this book. In fact, I was hooked from the get-go, to the detriment of a couple of books which had been in the reading queue much longer. I recognized the thrill, the love, the disappointment of being a devoted fan, marveled at the ingenious gimmick used to announce the arrival of the band in Philadelphia, smiled at the generous spirit of Vic Spinetti towards these young girls. Of course all things, good or not, must eventually come to an end, and when Patty graduates from high school and meets her first boyfriend, the Beatles end up taking a backseat to real life. All too soon, the story and the book were over.

If you are a longtime Beatles fan who can recite not only all lyrics, but also chords to their songs, someone who owns rarities and knows more about the band than they did themselves, this is not a must-read for you. But if you love the music of these boys who were unlike anyone else before them, or if you simply enjoy an engaging yarn, this is definitely for you.

“Diary of a Beatlemaniac” is published by Cynren Press. I received an advance copy from Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “Secret Passages in a Hillside Town” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Olli Suominen, publisher, husband, and father, lives in small town in Finland. His two most distinguishing traits are a tendency to lose umbrellas and a penchant for detailed, disturbing dreams. When the town is gripped by the surprising bestseller, How to Live a Cinematic Life, by local author, Greta Kara, Olli, like many of his fellow citizens, joins a film club whose mission it is to work through Greta’s film suggestions and the advice based thereupon. It turns out that Greta is looking for a publisher for her upcoming book, a magical travel guide set in the small hillside town of Jyväskylä, where both she and Olli grew up. When she reaches out to him via Facebook, Olli’s life is thrown into turmoil.

Up to now, you might think that Secret Passages is just another novel about an unhappy man trapped in an unhappy relationship looking to rekindle a long-extinguished romance. You would be wrong. This is, after all, a book of magical realism, where abovementioned passages appear in unlikely places and lead to unpredictable destinations, with unforeseeable results. The events that happen to Olli and Greta in the course of the story are rooted in a long-buried secret from their shared past whose actual enormity is skilfully and purposefully unveiled to the reader chapter by chapter, like a bud blossoming in slow motion. In the end, the novel presents two alternative courses of action, but can there be a happy ending in either one? I’m not going to tell you, because Secret Passage in a Hillside Town is a book you need to read for yourself to experience its beauty and tragedy fully.

Besides being an engaging read, this novel is also a wonderful example of an excellent translation, work that in my opinion isn’t really appreciated enough. In this case, translation credits go to Lola M. Rogers.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is published by Pushkin Press. I received a copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “How to Love a Jamaican” by Alexia Arthurs

Short stories are a genre I never paid much attention to. Sure, I have some Bradbury on my shelf, alongside Salinger and Roald Dahl, but the label “short story” was not a good endorsement to get me to read a particular book – until recently. Interestingly, it’s been the young, female writers that have awakened a never-before-suspected passion for story collections (and poetry, but that is another thing altogether). Alexia Arthurs is one of these writers that should not be missed.

The most significant summary of Ms Arthurs’s biography is the fact that she was “born and raised in Jamaica and moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was twelve.” This real-life experience informs the characters and narratives in “How to Love a Jamaican.” The primary focus lies on female characters (although brothers, lovers, fathers, and other males are definitely present, and one story is even told from the perspective of a male narrator): Mothers and daughters, grandmothers, best friends, and even mermaids make appearances. Ms Arthurs ponders questions of identity and heritage, often leaving her characters in a state of tension as they struggle with finding a place for themselves in their given circumstances. From the get-go, her writing style is lively and immediately engaging. I found myself looking forward to meeting each new character as one story after another unfolded among the pages. Often, the reader is left with a sense of profound loss or melancholy, a clear sign of how masterfully Ms Arthurs manages to engage her audience.

Oddly, the one story that did not resonate with me at all was the rather long title story, and the reason for this disconnect was the irritating use of grammar. Within the narrative, Arthurs continually switches between past and present tense, without a clear indication of the purpose of this narrative device. While the main character, a successful singer more than casually reminiscent of Rihanna, clearly struggles with her own loneliness and the death of an acquaintance, this pain stays well locked on the page, making her seem distant and therefore not quite relatable. Then again, never having been a famous anything myself, perhaps I’m missing a crucial piece of experience in order to fully “feel” the story.

“How to Love a Jamaican” is published by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine. I was provided a copy by Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “Woodcutter” by Shaun Baines

From the publisher’s description:

“SOME FAMILY TREES ARE MEANT TO FALL…

On the run from his criminal family, Daniel Dayton returns home to Newcastle Upon Tyne when his abandoned daughter is attacked.

But his family have problems of their own. Targeted by a brutal mercenary, their empire is destined to be destroyed should Daniel refuse to help.

Betrayed by his parents. Despised by his brother. In love with his sister-in-law. Home has become a dangerous place to be.

Daniel wants his daughter safe. And he wants his revenge, but in the shadowy streets of Newcastle, things are never what they seem.”

If you want to know what Shaun Baines’s debut novel is about, this blurb will give you the right idea without me having to provide spoilers. At first, I found it somewhat difficult to really get into the rhythm of the story, primarily because the writing reminds me very much of the German dimestore publication, “G-Man Jerry Cotton”, which is full of gangster jargon and clichés. Then again, ol’ Jerry has been going strong since 1954, so clearly, this type of writing does not necessarily speak against a book. In fact, as I continued reading, I eventually stopped noticing (or possibly, Mr Baines hit a more literary stride in his writing style). Mind you, this says nothing at all about the quality of the story yet; just be forewarned that if you tend to be as picky as I am, you may have a tough time enjoying Woodcutter.

‘Yeah, yeah, but what about the STORY?’ Well, dear readers, here you are in luck: Mr Baines skilfully weaves a tale of conflict and deception, with clever twists and turns that maintain the suspense. By the middle of the book, I was so engrossed that I felt compelled to keep reading all the way to the end! The deviousness of those aiming to use Daniel Dayton for their own purposes runs deep, indeed. I am pleased to say that although I am not aware of any plans for a follow-up, Mr Baines has certainly left himself the option to write one (or more), having established his characters, some future conflict, and even potential storylines.

Woodcutter is published by Thistle Publishing. I received an advanced copy for review; all opinions are my own.

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Review: “Perth: A Guide for the Curious” by Terri-ann White (editor)

Lately, I’ve been quite generous with my reviews, but to be fair, the books definitely deserved it. Some of you may be aware that I’m rather enamored with Perth, the capital of Western Australia. I enjoy listening to local musos, reading local writers, and I own a few traveler’s guides to the city, as well. This particular book was released just before my last trip Down Under. At first, I waffled whilst thumbing through it at the bookstore, but then decided, primarily due to the blurb on the back, to go ahead and add it to the collection. After all, it promised a different view of the place. Except, that’s not what happened… the review below was first published on Goodreads, where I gave the book two stars.

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From the back cover: “Perth: a guide for the curious is meant to be thumbed through in cafes, stuffed into satchels and walked around the city like a tireless companion.” Translate that into “read in the bookshop, steal but don’t waste your money, and if you need help drowning yourself in shallow water, feel free to use as weight in your backpack.” The title makes a promise that the content of this erratic, badly edited and boringly illustrated tome cannot keep. For one thing, not a thought was wasted on who the intended audience might be. Some of the essays are entirely pointless drivel that provide neither illumination nor illustration of the nature of this most isolated capital city. Few of them bother to scratch up any substance beyond flimsy personal anecdotes that cannot remotely be connected to Perth as it exists today, partly because the photo material is so tiny, one needs a magnifying lens to make out any detail, partly because the included “maps” are merely strip maps of the former wetland glory dotted with random landmarks, as if someone had invited a drunken darts player to create illustrations. So, if the “curious” addressed in the title are already familiar with Perth, it is doubtful they would bother purchasing this book, and if it is aimed at a broader audience, I recommend buying an additional road map.

Somewhere in the book, the authors claim that content goes beyond nostalgia, but the old-fashioned photographs dividing individual sections say otherwise. All these points, together with the ridiculous foreword by current Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi, who is clearly creating credentials for a future career in tourism marketing, should have been enough to warn me to keep the credit card in the wallet and run, not walk, to the nearest exit of the bookshop. Perhaps the final review copy of the book was a bit of a rush job, or else Terri-ann White should have spent more time with actual proof-reading, because when I said “badly edited” before, that is just what I mean.

Some of the essays are rambling pieces that provide no clear connection to Perth at all, and sadly, that does include the mumbo-jumbo chapter on Nyoongar place names. If you cannot get enough quality submissions for a whole book, look further or print a magazine instead. Page 143, in Peter Kennedy’s chaotic piece on local politics and name-dropping, features two whole lines, neatly enclosed in parentheses, that clearly constitute a text correction of some sort. Geoffrey London’s Urban Reflections not only boast a sadly obvious grammatical mistake (“…becoming a keen student of the city and it’s architecture”, p. 183) but also a complete disconnect from Perth then and now, as it is wholly unillustrated. Websites such as Lost Perth feature vast vaults of photographic material that could have been used to bring these remembrances to life for those readers who are not old or local enough to be familiar with the city at that time.

All in all, this collection reads like a hurried assembly of random writings without direction. The small handful of actually insightful and interesting articles cannot balance out the rest, and one must look very, very closely to “find the city’s soul” or discover anything about its personality. Save your money for the excellent Perth by David Whish-Wilson, instead and satisfy your curiosity by visiting the local tourist office and exploring on your own.

Postscript: today I actually officially finished the book. I stand by my original assessment. The only reason to elevate the rating at all would be that David Whish-Wilson’s essay was a fabulous example of what the book could have been, had standards for content been set and applied.

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu

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No, I’m not closing the blog again already; I have far too many goodies lined up for you in the future. It just so happens that I’ll be away from the (or any, really) keyboard until late May, so there won’t be new posts until then. To get you through the waiting period, I may post a couple of older reviews I’ve done elsewhere. Meanwhile, I promise to put any downtime I may have to good use, so expect fresh reviews upon my return!

Review: “Plants Taste Better” by Richard Buckley

It may be that the mojo is strong right now, or perhaps I’ve just been lucky with selections, but I have reviewed some great cookbooks recently. Richard Buckley’s “Plants Taste Better: Delicious plant-based recipes, from root to fruit” stands out even among those. Before I continue with what this book is, I should perhaps spend a moment explaining what it is not, from my perspective as someone who loves spending time in the kitchen and is always eager to try new recipes. This book is not for cooks who prefer to take as little prep time as possible. Yes, there are a few recipes that will accommodate you, but the majority will seem like frustrating exercises. Buckley features quite a few recipes whose individual parts must be made in advance, and even though that sometimes means up to days in advance, I realize a good number of casual or busy cooks won’t want to bother.

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So, who is “Plants Taste Better” for? Anyone who enjoys recipes that feature commonplace ingredients with a twist and beautiful presentation. Cooks and gourmands who love to tickle the taste buds and don’t mind a little extra effort. One refreshing feature of the recipes is that the ingredient lists are generally relatively short to moderately long.

Buckley begins by offering a bunch of no-nonsense, down to earth advice on cooking, combining flavors, and choosing and buying produce. Unlike most other chefs, he offers a word of wisdom on using salt and cayenne pepper properly, as well. He spends some time explaining what exactly ‘umami’ is and how one can achieve it when cooking. Finally, he goes over essential and nice-to-have kitchen equipment.

The book is divided into Snacks; Soups, Pates, and Light Lunches; Salads; Mains; Desserts; and Breads. The recipes are frequently amended by helpful hints. Nothing is left to chance for those who enjoy stocking their pantry, fridge, and freezer with homemade essentials: From making stocks and pickles, a variety of garnishes like spiced nuts and dukkah, to making pasta (with photos to help with more complicated shapes like tortelloni and an entire section on making perfect gnocchi), oils, butters, and milks, the options are virtually endless. I was particularly impressed with the fact that the Breads chapter begins with a sourdough rye bread, something I have tried to find in our area for ages.

So, is this a must-have? If you feel about food and its preparation as I do, then definitely. More timid cooks may be happy to know that every dish is featured in a photo, as well.

“Plants Taste Better” is published by Quarto Publishing Group – Jacqui Small. I received a free copy for review via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Great Expectations

Here we are, another day, another blog. I had gotten lazy on the personal blog for some time, but then I started reading short stories which led to crime fiction which led to poetry which led to poetry guides, and many moon and even many more book purchases later, I need a good home for my reviews. So this is it. What can you, the reader, expect? Well, I am not a professional reviewer. I write what I think about a book, including weird grammar and misspellings, because I notice those, even when I try not to. My preferred genres include travel books, cookbooks, mystery novels, thrillers, adult literary fiction, fiction for young people, biographies (especially about or by musicians), short stories, and poetry. That doesn’t mean I don’t read anything else. But most of what occupies my nightstand… and my end table… and my dining table… and the bathroom… you get the idea… belongs to one of the genres I have just mentioned.

If you would like me to review a book of yours, please contact me via Netgalley or email me at vyvienn(at)gmail(dot)com. You can find many older examples of my reviews on Netgalley, Amazon, and Goodreads. Just be aware that I take the honest review idea seriously: I am equally likely to say what I didn’t like about a book as what I did like. So if you are merely looking for accolades, Kirkus Review might be more up your alley.

What do I expect from you, dear readers? I expect that sometimes you will disagree with my review, possibly violently so. While that is your right, I will not tolerate comments that are personally insulting to me, authors, or other readers or commentators. Netiquette may seem terribly 1998 at this point, but I insist on good manners around here. If you’ve read a book and are curious if I have, too, and what I thought about it, you can certainly ask or even suggest what I should read next. Just let me warn you right now: the waiting list is quite long already and likely to grow a bit longer by next month.

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. (…) On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn