Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi: A Winsome Tale of a Rookie Teacher

(WordPress is doing that thing again where it messes up the html in my post header. I think I’ve fixed it, but if the beginning of the post looks ugly, sorry, I’m doing my best)

Mr. Pizza
Mr. Pizza

by J. F. Pandolfi


ePUB, 298 pg.
L&A Publications, 2018

Read: December 4 – 5, 2018

On the verge of graduating from college, Tony Piza (long “I”, and yes, he’s heard all the jokes), decides he’s not ready to head to law school and would like to take a year off. Inspired by a suggestion from his roommate, he applies to teach at a Roman Catholic school near his home. He figures that it’ll be pretty easy — spout some facts and figures from the text-book, assign some homework, do a little grading, catch up on his reading. All while living rent-free with his parents and sister. Despite never having taken an education class, nor showing any previous interest in education, and some iffy interview questions, he’s hired.

Early on, he performs his duties just as he planned — and it’s as successful as you imagine. But before long, he starts to see his students as individuals, not some faceless mass. It’s just a few steps from there to caring about their education and trying to do something about it. Tony also makes some friends with fellow teachers — two other lay teachers (including the other male staff member), and one nun. They start to rub off on him — and even inspire him.

But that doesn’t mean he turns into Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr or George Feeny, he’s more like a version of Gabe Kotter or Charlie Moore. Unconventional, off-kilter, and comical — yet challenging. Both his lectures and his assignments bring out the strengths and weaknesses his students (and their parents) were unaware they possessed. They also get Tony in trouble with parents, school administrators and school board members.

Essentially, the novel is a bildungsroman, watching Tony’s development from someone who sees teaching as a vacation from his real life to someone truly invested in it. I don’t want to say that it’s a smooth transition or that he flips the switch and becomes the World’s Greatest 6th Grade Teacher ™. That would make for a very dull novel.

Pandolfi writes in a very smooth, assured style. There’s not a lot of artistic flourishes — that’s not a critique, just an observation. It is charming, frequently amusing, and pretty earnest. I was a little afraid after reading the description that this would be a satire that tried too hard, one of those books where you can see the writer trying to be funny (which almost never works) — but I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t. Tony seemed to try too hard, but not Pandolfi — a character doing that is annoying, but it’s a character trait; a writer doing that is frequently a a deal breaker.

Tony’s antics and judgement are a mixed bag, as I mentioned. Early on, some of his jokes/behavior didn’t seem like fun, they seemed capricious and even mean — but so did M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye and Duke Forrest (the book and movie versions, anyway). From the get-go the 1973 setting and sensibility put me in that frame of mind, so that’s where my mind went. And sure, part of the book is to show his growth from that, but it’s pretty off-putting. Similarly, I had trouble swallowing how tone-deaf he was when it came to jokes about Roman Catholics (even after being warned), yet he was reflexively sensitive to other people/problems (frequently in a way that seemed at least somewhat anachronistic).

Ultimately, I was able to get past that — and it’s possible that without me putting something about that in my notes, I’d have forgotten to mention it. Because of his growth, by that last third or so of the book, you see almost no signs of this (except when his past comes back to haunt him). So, I guess I’m saying, if you’re put off by some of his early behavior, give him a chance.

His sister, Patty, has Down’s Syndrome. I really appreciated the way that Pandolfi treated her. She’s simply a character — there’s no After-School Special moment with her, she’s not an object of pity — she’s simply Tony’s little sister. There are funny moments with her, some sweet moments with her — just like there are with Tony’s mother and father.

Tony’s students, fittingly, come close to stealing the novel from Tony. As is the case with the Bad News Bears, the Sweathogs, Fillmore High’s IHP class, etc., you have to want to see the kids do well to care about their teacher. They’re a diverse group, each having some distinctive characteristics and/or problems. They come to believe in their “Mr. Pizza” long before the staff, or even Tony — and stay his biggest supporters through the ups and downs that ensue. If you don’t like at least most of the students, there’s something wrong with you and you should seek professional help. Or just re-read the book, because you probably missed something.

The rest of the cast of characters are well-drawn and believable. There are a few that I’m glad we didn’t get much time with (Tony’s extended family, for example). His friends, fellow teachers and principal are strong characters, a couple of them are better developed. But that’s simply due to time spent with them. Pandolfi has a gift for good characters, which is half the battle in a novel.

Mr. Pizza is a charming tale of a young man maturing at a turning point in his life. There’s some good laughs, some uncomfortable moments, and some earnest emotional beats. The book is a pleasure to read and it — and it’s protagonist — will win you over and get you rooting for them both.

Disclaimer: I received this book from RABT Book Tours in exchange for this post and my participation in the book tour.

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3.5 Stars

✔ Read a book with your favorite food in the title.

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BOOK SPOTLIGHT & GIVEAWAY: Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi

I’m very happy to host a Book Tour stop for J. F. Pandolfi’s Mr. Pizza (and not just because it satisfies a category for the 2018 While You Were Reading Challenge). Be sure to click the link below for the Rafflecopter giveaway — but do read the book/author info, too –and then come back later this morning for my thoughts about the book.

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Mainstream Fiction
Date Published: August 3, 2018
Publisher: L&A Publications
 
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Most people make at least one really harebrained decision in their life. Just ask Tony Piza. Deciding he needs a “paid vacation” for a year after college, Tony lands a job teaching at a Catholic elementary school. Talk about the Moby Dick of miscalculations. His pathetic effort is making him look bad, crimping his love life, and leaving him feeling guilty. A new approach, fueled by his irreverent humor, makes him a hit with his students. But it riles the powers that be. A showdown seems inevitable. Whether he can survive it—well, that’s something else.
About the Author

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J. F. Pandolfi went to Fordham University as an undergrad, then taught at a Catholic elementary school before attending Fordham Law School.

Practicing law certainly had its moments, but to call it “utter euphoria”—well, that was a stretch. Plus, the voices that had taken up residency in his head (rent-free, the deadbeats) kept insisting that he share his writing with the world. An award for his flash fiction piece, “Psychology for Dummies”, convinced him that the voices might be on to something. And so he called upon his fond memories as a teacher, which served as a backdrop to his debut novel, “Mr. Pizza”.

J. F. also briefly believed he had won the New York City Marathon. Alas, it turned out to be a dream, apparently brought on by an acute case of restless leg syndrome.

A staunch supporter of the fight to eradicate adult illiteracy, J. F. was accorded a Special Recognition in Literacy Award for his efforts.

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The Summer Holidays Survival Guide by Jon Rance: Heart-warming and Funny Bone-Tickling

The Summer Holidays Survival GuideThe Summer Holidays Survival Guide

by Jon Rance

Kindle Edition, 262 pg.
2018

Read: November 14 – 15, 2018

‘Oh, Dad, how little you know,’ said Liv, her head returning to her phone.

How little I know. I have a feeling this one cold, hard sentence, uttered from my twelve-year-old daughter’s lips, might sum up my life.

Ben Robinson is an art teacher, in his mid-40s, and is trying to figure out how he’ll survive the upcoming summer holidays — 6 weeks with his three kids, and a marriage who’s spark is gone out (possibly for good). Oh yeah, and an aging father with dementia moving in with them, rather than a nursing home. Meanwhile, he’s trying to prepare for a half-marathon, which is about a whole marathon more than he’s ready for.

We get a day by day (or close to it) account of how this goes for Ben. The short version is: not very well. Particularly in the beginning. Ben meddles in his fifteen year old son’s love life (with some really bad sex tips — all of which I’m considering passing on to my kids), cannot understand his twelve-year-old daughter’s social media life (and nascent pubescence), and derails his eight year old son’s summer plans without trying. Things go downhill from there, really.

His dad is having trouble remembering that he doesn’t live in the same home, or that his wife has been dead for a few years — this is a source of strain for both Ben and his father — and the relationship becomes strained. Ben is having trouble seeing his father this way, and his father is having trouble being this way. Both are trying their best, but this

Speaking of a strained relationship, the number of things wrong with his marriage keeps growing, and every thing that Ben tries to do to fix it just makes things worse. He and his wife aren’t communicating well — one of those problems that keeps feeding itself and growing worse.

Throw in an accidental participation in an anti-Brexit demonstration, a road rage incident leading to social media notoriety for one member of the family, teen romance problems, summer-altering injuries, and well — clearly, someone needs to write a survival guide.

As Ben and his family try to get through their struggles intact — and maybe even better than that — there’s plenty of fodder for humor. There’s a lot of heartwarming material, some real laughs and more than a few chuckles. There’s some really effective writing and characterization.

However, there’s also Rance’s need to go for the big laugh. And here, he basically turns Ben into Basil Fawlty — with all the wild schemes, failing schemes, shouting, misunderstandings and slapstick involved. I don’t think any of these scenes or moments worked for me. When he’s going for subtle laughs, or those that grow from character, I really enjoyed it. When the subject matter is serious (or at least non-comedic), Rance is really strong. It’s when he’s obviously trying that he falters.

‘Marriage,’ said Dad. ‘There’s always ups and downs. You just keep riding it, son. It’s like a rollercoaster. You can’t get off, so you just hold on, and do your best to enjoy it.’

‘I’m holding on for dear life, but life is harder than it was, Dad. The world has changed. The rollercoasters are bigger and scarier now. The drops are bigger, the hills higher.’

‘Oh tosh. The world might change, but people don’t. Love is still love, clear and simple. Don’t blame the world for your problems, son. Hold on tighter. Love stronger.’

That’s one of the more earnest moments — and there are plenty of them in the latter part of the novel, all set up well in the early part — and it shows the heart of the book — and there’s plenty of heart. Rance won me over, and got me to put more of his books on my list because of these kind of moments, and the genuine laughs I got from the smaller moments, I’ve got more of his stuff on the TBR.

It’s a nice, pleasant book that’ll tickle your funny bone and warm your heart.

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3 Stars

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A Charming, Dark, and (somehow) Fun Serial Killer Tale

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer

by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Hardcover, 223 pg.
Doubleday Books, 2018

Read: November 23, 2018

Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

That’s one of the best pair of opening sentences I can recall. How do you not get hooked right there? You get so much in those two sentences, you know that Ayoola has killed multiple times, at least three (otherwise, Korede would’ve said something like “What, again?”); the fact that she says “him,” instead of “someone” or a name suggests that Korede will know who she’s talking about without explanation; and you hear a put upon sibling fed up with their sister’s antics.

And yeah, that’s the book in essence — Ayoola has killed her third boyfriend (in self-defense, she swears . . . again), and calls on her big sister to come help clean up. Korede’s a clean freak — she’s not quite OCD, but close. When life gets stressful, she cleans, and with her little sister, she’s got plenty of stress in her life.

Korede is beginning to think that Ayoola might not just be the innocent girl who has been able narrowly escape assault. Three kills, she’s read online, qualifies you to be a serial killer. And what’s worse — the doctor that Korede has unrequited feelings for has caught her sister’s eye, too (and vice versa) — and that can’t be good for him. I had about a dozen ideas how this was going to end — and I was wrong on every point. Which is good, because Braithwaite’s ideas were far better than mine would’ve been. She zagged when most would’ve zigged and nailed the resolution to this book.

This is enough to make an entertaining and suspense filled book. But then you throw in the characters that Braithwaite has created and things take on a different twist.

Korede’s a nurse — a demanding, dedicated, compassionate one. Ayoola is a vapid knockout who knows that it doesn’t matter what she knows, does, or thinks — she’s convinced that all she has to do is continue to look good and make men feel good about themselves and she’s set. This seems shallow, but neither Ayoola or Korede can prove that she’s wrong.

The dynamic of the long-suffering, responsible, plain(er) sibling doing the right thing and looking out for the spontaneous, outgoing, super attractive one isn’t new. Adding a mother who takes the responsible one for granted and dotes on the other, doesn’t change things, either. But somehow, Braithwaite is able to depict these three in a way that seems wholly familiar (so you can make assumptions about a lot of the relationship) and yet it feels so fresh she might have invented the archetypes.

If Jennifer Weiner lived in and wrote about Lagos, Nigeria and included murders in a tale of sibling rivalry and learning to accept yourself — you’d get something a lot like this book. There’s an intangible, ineffable quality to Braithwaite’s writing that I cannot capture better than that — but it’s better than my illustration sounds. The story goes to some really dark places, and there’s really no reason to find the characters or story so charming — but that’s all down to Braithwaite’s fantastic authorial voice. Yes, it’s about murder, the importance of family, self-sacrifice and what’s more important in this life — skill, intelligence and dedication, or beauty and sex appeal; but you might as well be reading about Bridget Jones counting cigarettes and worrying about Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy.

One other thing — this is just a wonderfully designed book. The size — smaller than your typical hardcover — is distinctive, the typeface used in chapter headings and page numbers are peculiar enough to stand out. The whole thing just feels like a different kind of book. Does this make an impact on your enjoyment of the novel? Probably not, but I appreciated the experience and look.

I can’t think of enough ways to praise Braithwaite — there’s an intangible quality to this book that just won me over pretty much on page one. You will not believe that this is her first novel — and you will hope it’s not her last. The sibling rivalry story was well-told and engaging, the hospital stories were enough to be the core of a very different novel by themselves, the serial killer story was unpredictable. The characters are the kind that you’ll remember for a long time. Stop reading me and go find a copy of this book.

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4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Dry Hard by Nick Spalding: Who needs to drink when you can have this much fun reading?

Dry HardDry Hard

by Nick Spalding

eARC, 293 pg.
Amazon Publishing UK, 2019
Read: November 19, 2018

Kate Temple’s in PR, Scott Temple’s a marketing director for a distillery. Both of them rely on alcohol to get through their days (and nights). They used to have each other to rely on and curb their use, but as they’ve become more successful, they have to do more things away from each other and they really don’t have anyone to watch out for them. Also, because they spend less time with each other, both have a hole they need to fill throughout their days — which usually involves more drinking.

Things are getting bad enough that they both endanger their jobs (not to mention the property and safety of others) thanks to drunken escapades. But this doesn’t give either of them much pause — if anything it drives them to the bottle even more. Their teenaged daughter, Holly, can’t understand why these two can’t see how bad their drinking is, how much it’s hurting their marriage, how much it’s affecting her life. So, at Christmas, she decides to secretly film them at their drunken worst (which starts pretty early in the evening) and then she shows it to them, hoping this video intervention will awaken them to their problem.

It doesn’t work — her parents defend their drinking, downplay the mortifying things they do on video and generally blow her off. So in a fit of adolescent pique, she uploads the video to YouTube so her friends can see it. But the video catches the attention of a couple of popular YouTube celebrities and next thing they know, Kate and Scott are a viral sensation.

This very public shaming convinces them that they need to make some changes, and decide to cut out drinking totally. Holly tries to get them public support by uploading videos chronicling their efforts to live dry for a year, attaching the hashtag #DryHard. Things do not go well — well, maybe well, but not smoothly.

Now, here’s where Spalding distinguishes himself from almost every other writer on the planet — he makes all of that hilarious. Yes, Holly’s going through a lot because of her parents, but even in the way that Spalding describes it, her hardships are funny. At the 14% mark, I wrote in my notes “I have no idea if he can tell a story, but Spalding can make me laugh!”

I can thankfully report, he can tell a story — and still makes me laugh. The comedy comes from the situations, from the slapstick-y way his characters navigate the situations, and just the way he narrates (typically through the protagonists’ voices). It’s not just one thing that he does well — he can bring the laughs through multiple channels. Yes, the couple are careening toward rock bottom, but you laugh about it; yes, they’re dealing with very serious life and death issues — but Spalding makes you find the humor in the situations; they have monumental struggles that don’t go away just because they sober up, but you’ll ber chuckling and chortling while watching them flounder.

Oh, also, this has nothing to do with the plot, but Spalding’s description of Gin Fawkes — a flavored gin using orange peel and cinnamon produced by Scott’s distillery — is enough to make me consider becoming a teetotaler. Fantastic stuff. Funny and horrifying in equal measures.

This is the story of a family in crisis and the great lengths they go to to preserve that family. That right there sells me on the book — everyone wants the same thing — Kate and Scott’s marriage to recover. There’s not one person in the family thinking of pulling away, there’s not one more committed than the rest — both spouses are flawed and fallible, even Holly makes mistakes and loses her way, however briefly. No one’s blameless, no one’s to blame, Scott and Kate have got themselves to this point together, and together they’ll make it out. Too many books like this will take the “side” of one spouse — one is committed, one is faithful, one is stupid and blind to their own faults and one is the bigger/wiser person, etc., etc. Spalding doesn’t do that — he presents the Temples as mutually dysfunctional, mutually aspirational, and human.

Unlike a lot of similar authors, if Spalding had the opportunity for an honest, heartfelt emotional scene or a series of laughs — he’d pick the laughs 99 times out of 100. Thankfully, if he could go for a fairly honest and quite heartfelt scene with laughs, he’d go for that too. If he’d gone for fewer laughs and more of the honest and heartfelt moments, he might have a more complex, realistic, and substantive novel. Something more akin to Jonathan Tropper or Nick Hornby at their best. Instead, Spalding produced an entertaining, funny and frequently hilarious novel. The substance is there — but it’s hidden and easy to miss between the chuckles.

If you take the time to look for the substance/depth — you’ll find it and appreciate its presence. If you don’t and just laugh, you’ll be fine and have a good time — either way, you win.

This was my first Nick Spalding book — it will not be my last. Fast and funny — I had a blast reading this and laughed out loud more than I can remember doing in a long time. Read this. You’ll enjoy it.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Amazon Publishing UK via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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3.5 Stars

The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh by Jenn Stroud Rossmann: A Great Read about the Less-Glamorous, Less-Successful Side of Silicon Valley

The Place You're Supposed to LaughThe Place You’re Supposed to Laugh

by Jenn Stroud Rossmann

eARC, 330 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018

Read: November 5 – 7, 2018

Those inclined to irony might find it in the Palo Alto Farmers Market assembled on asphalt, where there had once been an apricot orchard. Each weekend from May through December, the workweek parking lot filled with vendor stands and umbrellas protecting bins of trucked-in garlic cloves, avocados, tomatillos, et al. The University down the street was known as “The Farm,” though it hadn’t been one since the Stanfords donated their country estate and chartered a college in the 1880s. Stanford grads and especially its dropouts had been transforming the Valley ever since; the fruit came from further and further away.

It’s really hard to grab a representative quotation from this novel — but this comes close. There’s a hint of the humor, the capturing of a moment in time, societal observation, a hint of wistfulness, and even a modicum of critique.

It’s 2002, in many parts of the country the shadow of 9/11 looms large. It’s present in Palo Alto, but not to the degree it is other places — what looms larger is the bursting of the dot-com bubble, everyone around them has been impacted in some way by it — most people have been impacted in significant ways, although the ripples are still going out from them and affecting the lives of everyone in their community in some way.

Our focus in this novel is on the life of Chad Loudermilk and those who are near him. Chad’s 14 and is enduring his first year in high school. His best friend since . . . well, forever, Walter Chen attended there briefly, but was pulled out by his parents to attend the Roman Catholic academy nearby — for a greater focus on academics, and fewer active shooter drills. Life’s hard without Walter around. Chad’s mother works with “at risk” youth, on making wise decisions, while she’s still reeling from her mother’s death a few months earlier. Chad’s father, Ray, is dealing with ripples of the burst — the advertising agency he’s part of his dealing with a shift in clientele. There’s Scot, Chad’s next-door neighbor, the creator of Latte (wink, wink) — the Macromedia tool — a big brother figure, dispensing non-parental advice and playing video games (his wife really doesn’t have any time for Chad). There’s a new girl in school that Chad can’t stop talking about, and a couple of guys from the proverbial other side of the tracks that he met at a record store and is spending time with. The major focus of the plot is following Chad’s interactions with them over the course of a few months — we get chapters focusing on his parents and what’s going on in their lives, but on the whole, the rest of the characters are seen filtered through Chad’s experience.

The other major thread follows Chad’s maternal aunt, Diana, a physics professor we meet as she registers for a conference in Barcelona. She’s trying to re-establish her career after pressing pause on things to have a child with her best friend. It’s not easy for her to get back into the swing of things, but she’s close. As Chad’s aunt, there’s a lot of opportunity for the plotlines to intersect and overlap — but the sisters aren’t that close, so it’s not as frequent as it could’ve been. By the end of the novel, events have transpired enough that Diana’s as large a fixture in Chad’s life as Scot (maybe larger), so it’s easy to intermingle the story lines. But for the first 1/2-2/3 or so, there a clear distinction between the two — and it’s not clear why we’re getting both stories.

Another thing that’s not clear is what exactly is Chad’s story. This is close to a Bildungsroman, but we only really see the beginning of Chad’s development — it’s like the first Act of Chad’s Bildungsroman. Which isn’t to say that it’s an incomplete story, it’s not. It’s just about Chad starting adolescence. You don’t want to get the details from me, you want to get them from the book, but a lot of stuff happens. Nothing major like a school shooting, a terrorist attack, or anything. Just life, the ebbs and flows of people’s lives. I could actually sum up the major events of the novel in 2 sentences. One of them might be long-ish, but just two sentences.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a plot to this book. But really, you don’t see it (well, I didn’t see it) until toward the end — maybe even after the end. This is not a bad thing, it just means you have to think about things a lot. My notes are filled with comments along the lines of “I really don’t see where this is going” or “I’m not sure what the point of all this is” — and they’re always followed with, “Don’t care, great stuff.” I really didn’t care where Rossmann was going, I was too busy enjoying the ride — the voice, the characters, the atmosphere, the little bits like the Farmers Market (above), were enough to keep me engaged, entertained and turning the pages.

I’m not going to drill down and talk about the various characters — or even just one. I could do a post just about Ray, or Scot, or a long one on Chad or Diane — I think I’d have to do a series on Chad’s mom. Instead I’ll talk about them as a collective whole — they’re people. There are things to like about them all, there’s plenty to dislike about them all (particularly the adults). A lot of what they do seem inconsistent with the characters as Rossmann has presented them, but that just makes them more human. There’s not one character in this book that isn’t a human — no one larger than life (Scot kind of is, but he’s larger than life in the way that we all know someone who seems to be that way). Any person in this book could easily be the person next to you in the bagel shop, sipping on their caffeinated beverage of choice. They’re delightful in that perceived realism, also in the way that Rossmann talks about them. Without approval of anything, you get the feeling that she has affection for every character in the book.

The clergymen who appeared — however briefly — in this book were a couple of the least objectionable depictions of clergy I can remember seeing lately. Not hypocritical, they actually seemed to believe in what they were saying, and were actually trying to help those they encountered. It’s not often you get to see that anymore, and it should be acknowledged when you see it.

I’ve been struggling for a few days — and I’m not sure I’m succeeding at the moment — to put into words the experience that is The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh. I think I was hooked by the end of chapter 1 — definitely by some point in the third chapter. I liked the book, I liked the characters, I liked the writing. It’s a pleasant, thoughtful experience. It’s what reading a book should be like — skillful writing, wonderfully drawn characters and prose you enjoy immersing yourself in.

The novel talks about a lot of things — one of the biggest themes is forgiveness. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the topic discussed in quite the same way in any format. I won’t suggest that Rossmann exhausted the idea, obviously, but she talked about it, depicted it, and had her characters think about it in ways I found refreshing and encouraging.

I’m not sure what else to say — The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh is a great read. It’s a strong novel that will make you think, will make you feel, and will leave you satisfied. Rossman writes with sensitivity, wit and skill. What else are you looking for?

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for my honest opinion, which is seen above.

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4 1/2 Stars

The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond: An Artist, A Mysterious Russian and an Enigmatic Island

The Golden OrphansThe Golden Orphans

by Gary Raymond

Kindle Edition, 280 pg.
Parthian Books, 2018
Read: October 23 – 28, 2018

I thought for a moment. “I think I am about to do something stupid.”

“In Cyprus you only need ask yourself one question,” Tara said, deadly serious. “Is it out of desperation?”

I keep running into artists in the novels I read — like in Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, Russo’s Bridge of Sighs, or even Hawley’s Before the Fall — there are other examples, I’m sure — but they’re not coming to me right now. I’ve never understood the appeal, really, but I hold out hope that one day I’ll get it. And I shouldn’t be running out of opportunity anytime soon — it’s a vocation that draws authors like flies to honey.

Gary Raymond’s artist protagonist is a little different than the typical depiction. He’s a successful artist — to some extent, anyway — but not a genius (misunderstood or not), he’s not a superstar. In fact, his best days are probably behind him, and he knows it. But he’s still plugging away at it, while pursuing an otherwise self-destructive lifestyle. He’s invited to a funeral in Cyprus at just the right time — his finances are in shambles and his relationship is in a similar state, the largest question being which will fall apart first.

Not only is he invited, but his trip is paid for — so he can go. Francis Benthem is the deceased, and at one point in time he was a teacher, a mentor for the narrator (I should say that Raymond didn’t name him, I’m not being negligent) — he was like a father to him, really. So he goes to the funeral, and for most of it, is the only one present besides the priest. Eventually, Mr. Prostakov (Benthem’s employer, who paid for everything) and a few other people show up and leave quickly. Their appearance both confuses and intrigues the narrator.

Actually, that describes just about everything about Cyprus — it confuses and intrigues him. So he spends time getting to know the island, the people on it and, when given the opportunity, Mr. Prostakov. Illie Prostakov is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a hint of a stereotypical wealthy Russian with a murky past and revenue stream. He presents the narrator with a business proposition — take up residence in his home and replace Benthem. He’s a little vague as to the artistic duties required, so I will be, too. But the money’s good enough to take care of problems back home, so the narrator takes the job — not realizing the trouble and mystery that he’s put himself in the way of.

Unlike Bentham, the narrator won’t just take things at face value — he asks questions, and when he doesn’t get answers, he tries to find them (he might not be great at it, but he tries). Who is Prostakov? What’s he doing? Who are the people he surrounds himself with? Asking these questions isn’t the safest thing he could do — getting answers is probably worse.

The island of Cyprus isn’t just the setting of the novel, it’s practically a character. While the narrator is trying to understand his employer and his employer’s aims, most people are more concerned with getting him to understand Cyprus. Everyone’s description (I don’t have a hard count, but I’d guess at least a dozen are given) is different, but combined you begin to get an idea what life on the island is like. In the end, I think we get a fuller understanding of Cyprus than we do anything that the narrator is looking into.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t get any answers. He does, as does the reader. Raymond doesn’t leave you frustrated like that.

There’s a feel to this book that makes you think it’ll be one thing, but it’s not. The characters seem to be certain types, and most are — but they don’t act the way you think they will. The conclusion seems surely to be headed in one direction, but it ends up giving you a different ending. Everywhere you look, Raymond doesn’t do what you expect — which is both refreshing and annoying (you’d like to be right occasionally).

I’m not that convinced this is really a thriller — but it’s being marketed as one. As a thriller, I think it’s missing a sense of urgency, of real danger. But I think things moved too quickly, and without the depth called for in a literary book. A little more time after the narrator took the job and trying to accomplish it before the plot moves forward, more time spent on the painting (and talking about the process) would’ve helped. A greater sense of hazard, of peril from Viktor or Illie would’ve helped a lot on the thriller front. In the end, the book wasn’t quite sure it knew what it wanted to be — and a mix of the two genres would’ve worked, but it needed to be a bit more of one of them (or both) to really be effective. It was just always lukewarm.

That said — it never, not for a minute, failed to hold my interest. I may not have been very invested in the outcome or characters, but I was glued to it. Frankly, I think the narrator was the same way — he wasn’t invested in his relationship back in London, his career (really), or anything that was happening around him on Cyprus — but he couldn’t stop himself from sticking a toe in here and there, from involving himself just a little bit in everything. As he was confused — so was I. As he was intrigued — so was I. Raymond did a very effective job in getting the reader (or at least this reader) to see things from his protagonist’s eyes.

Raymond’s given us something unique here. I’ve talked before about books that I can respect and admire more than enjoy. This is one of those — the writing and approach of this novel exceeds any affection or excitement I might have for it. It’s not the kind of thriller you can finish and move on from easily — I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. The characters will linger in my imagination, but the reality he depicts will stay around longer. This isn’t a novel that lends itself to a rating any more than it lends itself to a genre-classification, so take it with a grain of salt.

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3.5 Stars

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided, including a copy of this book — which didn’t influence the above post, beyond giving me something to post about.