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2012 Massachusetts Book Award Winners

Winners of the 2012 Massachusetts Book Awards were announced on Friday!Massachusetts Book Award seal

Fiction
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

Nonfiction
Killer Stuff and Tons of Money
by Maureen P. Stanton

Poetry
The Trouble Ball by Martin Espada

Children’s/YA
Chasing the Nightbird by Krista Russell

Visit the Massachusetts Center for the Book for details about the winners and about the 12 Must-Read titles in each category.

Follow Massachusetts Center for the Book (@massbook) on Twitter and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/masscenterforthebook.

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Nightlife in the Afterlife: Hereafter by Terri Bruce (Blog Tour)

Hereafter Blog Tour buttonIn Hereafter, an entertaining novel by first-time author Terri Bruce, 36-year-old Irene crashes her car driving home drunk after a night out with girlfriends and literally wakes up dead. It takes a little while for Irene to realize that she’s a ghost because she can still drive her car; her house in Salem, Mass., looks the same; her widowed mother still leaves annoying messages on Irene’s answering machine; and Irene has woken up wearing the same short, clingy, red dress from what seems like the night before.

But why can’t she remember anything after the big, harvest moon that looked like it was dead ahead on the road before her? Why did she wake up standing next to the car, not sitting behind the wheel? Why do vague memories of swirling water outside her car windows keep surfacing? Why didn’t anyone call the police to report a car parked on the side of the road by the river? And the biggest question of all – how could she have died before she’d done all the things she’d been meaning (vaguely) to do someday? Like grow up and stop acting like a teenager, for example.

As a ghost, Irene feels so much like herself that she finds it hard to accept that the afterlife can’t be the same as her old life (i.e. lots of hanging out in bars with friends) without all the downsides (e.g.  jobs, chores, family obligations, and hangovers.) Although Irene is someone who has to learn everything the hard way, as her father told her once, she luckily finds early on a good (though underage) friend in Jonah, a teenager from Irene’s neighborhood who has investigated theories of the afterlife and experimented enough with out-of-body experiences that he can see dead people like Irene. Mature and sensible, Jonah is like a 36-year-old in a 14-year-old’s body, while with Irene it’s more like the other way around.

Hereafter is a contemporary, paranormal fantasy that uses dark humor (also sarcasm, innovative insults, and ironic observations) to reflect on the serious topic of how best to live, and includes numerous factoids (mostly from Jonah) on beliefs about an afterlife in different cultures and at different times. There’s a bit of sexual tension but the author doesn’t go overboard with sex scenes, keeping readers interested instead with tight dialogue and nuggets gleaned from her extensive research. Readers looking for a lighthearted book that still touches on some serious themes or for a novel with fantasy elements that doesn’t feature a sexy vampire huntress or a paranormal detective agency might try Hereafter. Set in the fall in Salem and Boston, it would be an especially good one to read in September or October.

Author Terri Bruce has generously offered an international giveaway, with your choice of either a print copy or a e-book (in any format) of Hereafter. Giveaway runs through Sept. 10. Comments on this review are welcome but not necessary to enter the giveaway.

Click here to enter giveaway contest (Open internationally)

This is stop #6 on the Hereafter blog tour. The next stop is author Kristi Petersen Schoonover‘s blog, where Terri Bruce will be writing a guest post.

Check out Stops 1-5 for contests, other giveaways, and more info on Hereafter and author Terri Bruce:

8/13/12 Verbose Veracity HEREAFTER Excerpt Reading

8/14/12 Little Read Riding Hood Guest Post (Favorite Books w/Red Dresses) on the Cover) and Giveaway (copy of HEREAFTER)

8/15/12 Sonnet O’Dell Interview

8/16/12 I’m a Book Shark Guest Post (Top Ten Books w/Ghosts)  and Giveaway

8/17/12 Kelly A. Harmon Guest Post (Chinese Ghost Month) and The Writers’ Lens Blog Tour Writing Contest Start

For a list of all stops on the Hereafter blog tour, click here.

Hereafter
Eternal Press
August 1, 2012
eBook ISBN: 9781615727247
$7.95
Print ISBN: 9781615727254

Disclosure: I received a free e-galley of Hereafter from the author when I volunteered to participate in the Hereafter blog tour, but have also paid for a paperback copy from Barnes and Noble either for myself or to donate to the library so others can read it. (I haven’t decided which.)

So You Think You’ve Got Tough Neighbors?: Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo (AUDIO)

The audiobook edition of Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo made me chuckle, grossed me outCover image for Zombie Fallout audiobook, and kept me in suspense in about equal measure. Narrator Sean Runnette is well suited for the voice of Michael Talbot, the forty-something hero-narrator of Zombie Fallout (and, I assume, of the next five books in the Zombie Fallout series) who is a sarcastic, family-oriented, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, anti-authority, irreligious survivalist and ex-Marine. Luckily for himself and his family, Mike is also a fanatic about zombie books and movies, so when the first living-dead neighbor shows up at his back door, Mike’s house is already stocked with a full arsenal of weapons, ammunition, survival gear, and a large amount of emergency rations. Although he never actually expected a zombie invasion, he felt it was important to be prepared for contingencies. Mike, his two sons, and son-in-law are all skilled shooters; his wife and daughter don’t play much of a role once the fighting starts (which is right away), although they are credited with being highly effective in using feminine wiles to manipulate the menfolk.

Zombie Fallout started life as a 99-cent Kindle book, and that unfortunately does show in the writing. I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading it on my own as much as I enjoyed it as an audiobook because of the author’s frequent use of ten-cent words when nickel words that he actually knew how to use would have been better. This was less distracting in the audio edition, because Sean Runnette spoke the words as if they were right, so you knew what the author meant. Zombie Fallout isn’t even in the same league as The Reapers Are the Angels if you compared them strictly on writing quality, but Zombie Fallout is pure, fast-paced entertainment and has to be enjoyed as such. If you’re a stickler for correct word usage (not that that’s going to help you in the event of a zombie outbreak) you’d probably be too irritated by Zombie Fallout to enjoy the story.

I first heard about Mark Tufo on the Guilded Earlobe’s amusing blog post about how Mark Tufo’s fans gently remonstrated with him about giving the Zombie Fallout series only a B rating, causing him to invite the author and some of his most rabid enthusiastic fans to contribute a guest post expressing their thoughts on the series. In addition to posting humble remarks about his fans, the author responded individually to each potential new fan who entered the giveaway for the Zombie Fallout audiobook by commenting on the blog post. Mark Tufo is a good example of how an amateur, self-published author builds a fan base using social media and becomes successful enough that a traditional publisher – like Tantor Audio, which published the audiobook editions of this series – can bring him on board with a ready-made audience for his work. Although he now lives in Maine, Mark Tufo is originally from Massachusetts, so when I didn’t win the giveaway, I decided to buy my own copy of the Zombie Fallout audiobook.

Although the Talbot family has moved to Colorado, the frequent references to Massachusetts places and sports teams and to Mike’s New England-style sarcasm (Who, us? Sarcastic?) all give Zombie Fallout a local flavor, but you definitely don’t want to eat anything while listening, what with all the descriptions of oozing pus (and other disgusting excretions) and body parts coming off. Not to mention the fart jokes and all the insensitive comments that Mike lets fly in the heat of the moment. (Mike Talbot and Howie Carr’s ex-cop Jack Reilly from Hard Knocks would probably be instant buddies if they met up in a Boston bar.)

Zombie Fallout is a fun zombie novel that imagines how people might respond to a sudden, utter transformation of everyday life while not changing, personality-wise, from how they always were. Although there are a lot of gross-out moments (to be expected in a horror novel) and not much world-building, I have to admit that it did make me laugh!

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Finding Family, New & Old: So Far Away by Meg Mitchell Moore

Cover image of So Far AwayFor Meg Mitchell Moore‘s second novel, So Far Away, she has created historical diary entries from an Irish immigrant maid’s found notebook, as well as believable contemporary characters ranging in age from 57-year-old archivist Kathleen, to Kathleen’s 30-something friend and coworker Neil, down to 13-year-old Natalie, who travels by bus from her suburban Newburyport home to Boston to visit the Massachusetts Archives in Boston on her own. She brings a crumbling notebook filled with handwriting too spidery for Natalie to read that she found hidden away in her basement – which turns out to be a gripping personal account from a Bridget O’Connell Callaghan (writing in 1975 as an elderly woman) about her position as a young maid just over from Ireland in a Boston doctor’s household.
Natalie (whose parents have separated and haven’t been showing much interest in her life) is investigating her family history for a school project and as a way of escaping bullying classmates who are tormenting her with malicious text messages. Kathleen, living alone with her dog Lucy after losing her teenage daughter years ago, becomes concerned about Natalie, but isn’t sure whether or how to intervene.
The author skillfully brings together several different story lines – historical and contemporary. Readers who liked The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve, or novels by Laura Moriarty or Joanna Trollope, will also like this moving novel about how easily families can break apart and how hard it can be to create new ones.

So Far Away
Moore, Meg Mitchell
Reagan Arthur (Little, Brown)
May 29, 2012
978-0-316-09769-7
$25.99

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of So Far Away from Little, Brown through NetGalley, but plan to purchase my own hardcover copy at an author signing at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library this month. Additional disclosure: I’m friends with the author’s mother-in-law, but I don’t think that influenced the review!

Other opinions of So Far Away (mostly good):
Amused by Books
Coffee and a Book Chick
Devourer of Books
Everyday I Write the Book
Jenn’s Bookshelves

Wartime Women: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Cover image of Next to LoveWorld War II and the pre- and post-war years from the perspective of women in small-town America have already been well mined for fiction, but Next to Love by Ellen Feldman evokes the time and its social upheavals more subtly than The Postmistress by Jennifer Blake, although not quite as masterfully as Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh. Next to Love is set in the fictional western Massachusetts town of South Downs, but doesn’t have a strong sense of place. it is more of a universal story than a Massachusetts story; events similar to the ones in Next to Love were happening in small towns all across the country, and times were changing everywhere.

The title comes from the first epigraph in Next to Love, a quotation ascribed to a 1914 British war correspondent and lexicographer: “War … next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.” The author doesn’t recreate battle scenes or women’s experiences overseas but imagines and describes the mostly unspoken-about psychological damage of war on soldiers and their families, in particular their wives and mothers, when husbands, sons, or close friends go into combat and come home changed or don’t come home at all.

Babe (known by this childhood nickname instead of by her given name, Bernadette) is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks with the funny last name (Dion) – the one who isn’t invited by her friends’ mothers to stay for dinner and the one whom the local librarian wouldn’t trust to check out more than one book at a time. She’s also the one whose boyfriend doesn’t propose marriage before leaving for the war while she’s bridesmaid at one friend’s rushed wedding after another before the young men of South Downs enlist or are drafted and also the only one of her circle of friends to take a wartime job. Having fallen in love with Claude Higgins, a local boy, Babe thinks, after traveling to meet him in North Carolina for a last-minute marriage before he ships out, that if it weren’t for the war he might never have crossed the class barrier and braved his parents’ disapproval to marry her, despite her intelligence and long legs.

Over the years during and after the war, she and her two childhood friends, Millie and Grace, remain loyal to each other, shedding some prejudices and overlooking others, trying to be good wives, mothers, and friends without losing too much of themselves. Here’s Babe, reflecting on their friendship, close to the end of the book:

They love one another with an atavistic ferocity, though, it occurs to Babe sitting in the sunporch, these days perhaps they do not much like one another. But she is asking too much of them. Friendship, like marriage, is not all of a piece. Sometimes she thinks she would kill for them. Sometimes she wants to kill them.

This novel would make a good book discussion book, touching as it does on issues of racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, feminism, and other topics on which there was a seismic cultural shift during the post-war decades. Next to Love is a bit too dark to be called women’s fiction – Babe’s outsider’s perspective and fettered intellect reminded me at times of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge – but readers who enjoyed Laurie Graham’s book The Future Homemakers of America (as I did) or Baker Towers will probably like Next to Love.

Next to Love
Feldman, Ellen
Spiegel & Grau
Trade Paperback pub date: May 15, 2012
978-0-8129-8241-1
320 pp.
$15.00

Disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Next to Love from Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers‘ program.

Other opinions on Next to Love (mostly good):
Fluidity of Time
Man of la Book
nomadreader
So Obsessed With

Business as Usual on the Streets of Boston: Hard Knocks by Howie Carr

From conservative Boston Herald columnist and radio personality Howie Carr, this novel of intrigue and corruption in the cramped underworld of Boston crime, politics, and law enforcement – where the three groups frequently bump up against each other or even overlap – isn’t going to win any awards from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, but it should appeal to fans of the author’s recent nonfiction books, The Brothers Bulger and Hitman, and to readers looking for local color that has nothing to do with foliage or baseball.
Appropriately enough, the book starts off with a local, low-level gangster getting bumped off, right after involving Jack Reilly in his problem – which then becomes Jack’s problem. Jack Reilly is a disgraced ex-Boston cop and former political bag man (But don’t call him that; he prefers the term “fixer.”) turned shady private investigator, who, though down on his luck, hasn’t yet lost all his connections or used up all of his political capital (i.e. “dirt,”), but with this little problem he’s had dumped in his lap, he’ll be lucky to be alive to worry about being able to pay next month’s rent, alimony, and cable bill.
I kept thinking Howie Carr had to be writing tongue in cheek when he created the character of Jack – the corrupt ex-cop with a warped, but still present code of honor – and the many other characters who continually mourn the passing of the formerly all-white neighborhoods of Boston and spout other bigoted, provincial, and self-serving cliches about the “good old days” that you might hear on Howie Carr’s talk radio show. By the end of the book, though, I decided he probably wasn’t writing tongue in cheek, so that made the book a little less enjoyable and a lot more offensive, given that I’m not a Herald subscriber for a reason.
There is plenty of humor in the other wry asides from Jack Reilly to make any reader or listener chuckle, however, especially jaded readers who think politics and ethics don’t have much in common except their last four letters. Being a Herald columnist, the author gets in quite a few jabs at the competition, The Boston Globe, and also gives Jack an attractive female crime reporter from the Herald to spar with and trade favors with. The book is loaded with references to local landmarks, mostly of the non-tourist variety, and even has a long drive through the South Shore and down Route 18 to Brockton, my current home city!
The audiobook narration is really well done; Peter Berkrot seemed to relish the variety of Boston accents and the mob-inflected growling dialogue, and even throws in an authentic-sounding Irish brogue for Jack’s rosy-cheeked, red-nosed, and faithful politician friend, Slip. I would recommend this book/audiobook to readers/listeners with a tolerance for intolerant characters  looking for a contemporary take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle (by Brockton-born George V. Higgins) or for more crime fiction with Boston settings, like Dennis Lehane‘s Kenzie and Gennaro books. Another recent entry in this field, The Charlestown Connection, by Massachusetts author Tom MacDonald (nominated for a Massachusetts Book Award) has a nicer main character, Dermot Sparhawk, who works in a parish’s food pantry, which I don’t think you would catch Jack Reilly doing!

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“Reilly Associates,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Is this Jack Reilly?”
“Speaking.”
“This is Bucky Bennett.” It didn’t ring a bell. “I know your brother.” The bell was ringing now. It was an alarm. “I knew him down in Otisville.” Another federal pen, in upstate New York, inhabited by a lot of Northeast organized-crime types, among them, at one point, my brother.
Marty’s friend spoke softly, but he might have been trying to lull me. “He told me to give you a call sometime.” That was mighty white of good old Martin T. Reilly. “I got a big, big problem, Jack.” Ex-cons often do. “Hello? Are you there?”
“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “I’m here.”
“Jack, you don’t know me, but I heard a lot about you. I heard you used to handle a lot of work for the mayor, the old one, and I know you were a cop, and now you’re on your own.”
That certainly was the CliffsNotes version of the life of Jack Reilly, a man teetering on that fine line between has-been and never-was. I sensed a pitch was imminent.
“I gotta talk to you. They’re looking for me. I gotta screw before they find me.”
“Who’s they?”
A hollow chuckle. “Can I meet you somewhere?”
Some people claim they can smell money. Me, I can smell no money, and I can smell it a mile away. “Pro bono” is just Latin for “deadbeat.” I decided to try to lose the guy.
I asked him, “Have you thought about calling the police?”
Another nervous laugh. “Marty told me you were a funny guy.”
“Look,” I said, staring at the two piles of unpaid bills in front of me. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Please, man, I’m desperate. I know what I must sound like, but I got some stuff, I gotta make sure it gets into the hands of the right people or I’m dead. You’re on Shawmut Ave., right? How far are you from Foley’s?”
Oh great. Not only was I not going to get paid, now I was going to have to buy him a drink, in my own place on top of everything else. James Michael Curley used to say that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. That’s excellent advice, I suppose, if you’re running for office, but who exactly was I trying to impress? Still, Bucky wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

Hard Knocks (Audiobook)
Carr, Howie
Berkrot, Peter (Narrator)
AudioGo, 2012
978-1-60998-772-5
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.
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The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont could become A Separate Peace for a new generation. But, in a coming of age story, what a difference 40 years make!
However similar in setting (New England prep schools) and themes (friendship, betrayal, guilt) they may be, The Starboard Sea isn’t likely to replace A Separate Peace as assigned reading, except in maybe the most progressive of schools – due to the adult activities of the late ’80s teenagers in this novel, who are more sophisticated and are growing up faster (at least, in some ways) than the prep school boys just before World War II in John Knowles’ classic novel. I don’t want to spoil the author’s careful construction of The Starboard Sea by giving away details of the narrative that are revealed over the course of the story, so I’m just going to speak very generally about the plot in this review.
Jason Prosper has washed up at a third-tier prep school on the Massachusetts coast for his senior year (Class of 1988) after the death of his roommate, best friend, and sailing partner at his last boarding school.

For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s. Another limb that picked up the slack. While knowing him, I’d always searched for similarities. For anything that might make us interchangeable. Cal and I looked alike. Both of us had wild brown hair that turned woolly when our mothers forgot to have it cut. Our bodies were trim and athletic. We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us seem tough. But there were differences. Cal had broken my nose by accident and joked that my face was asymmetrical, that he had caused my good looks to be a millimeter off. I had to agree that he was the movie star and I was the movie star’s stunt double. My eyes were a dull slate gray, Cal’s were magnetic. His eyes were two different colors. One was green. Not hazel or tortoiseshell, but a rain forest green. The other varied from misty gray to violet: his mood eye. My face received comfortable, comforting glances, but people stared at Cal. He commanded an electric attention. The only other physical difference between us was obvious at the end of a summer’s day. Cal’s skin tanned olive brown, and mine turned red with blisters. Cal belonged on a postcard from the Mediterranean. I, on the other hand, would always be Prosper the Lobster. At least, that’s what he called me.

Jason doesn’t get a completely fresh start at Bellingham Academy  – where, he explains, “If you could pay, you could stay” – because he’s trailed by rumors, and a couple of old acquaintances have landed there ahead of him. Known to be a gifted sailor, Jason is immediately recruited by the sailing coach, but sailing is a pleasure he can’t allow himself, until joining the team becomes a means to an end other than winning races. Jason restricts himself to explaining nautical terms and how to sail to Aidan, a boat-shy fellow student, a girl with no real friends at Bellingham, whom Jason’s jock buddies ostracize and taunt but Jason secretly befriends.
The tension in The Starboard Sea swells gradually, blending events from the present and the past so well that I never got the impatient (“Tell me the secret already!”) feeling that I sometimes get when the first-person narrator holds back something big. (In addition to A Separate Peace, The Starboard Sea is getting compared in blurbs to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I think The Starboard Sea is better.)
If you’re in the mood for atmospheric fiction; you don’t mind a book whose characters aren’t unambiguously good or bad; and the privileges of the wealthy won’t make you so outraged that you won’t want to read about them, I highly recommend The Starboard Sea. I hope the author has the draft of a second novel well underway.

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press through NetGalley.

The Starboard Sea
Dermont, Amber
St. Martin’s Press, February 2012
Hardcover
9780312642808
$24.99

Read Janet Maslin’s review of The Starboard Sea in The New York Times.

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