Posts Tagged Ecco

book review: The Tenth Muse

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Ecco| June 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-257406-0

RATING: *****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified: if the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true. The underlying structure of my family was something I’d never questioned. It had formed the foundation of my life. When it suddenly dissolved, I was unmoored. It had never occurred to me to question my mother’s love for me, or our relationship to each other. I had believed these things were absolute.”

Who would expect a novel about a young math prodigy working on the Riemann hypothesis and uncovering her family history in the process to be so riveting? The Tenth Muse is the best novel I’ve read this year. It’s an engrossing work of historical fiction with gorgeous writing, unforgettable characters and events. It’s a sprawling page-turner set in academia.

Katherine always loved problem-solving and equations and that’s what drew her to math: “Math had always seemed miraculous to me because of the beauty it revealed underlying nature, because of the deep sense of rightness that came over me when I understood something all the way through, as if for a moment I’d merged with the grace I only ever caught glimpses of.” Katherine is a brilliant mathematician working in a male-dominated field. During college and graduate school, her classmates remind her that there are few noted female mathematicians throughout history, notably Emily Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. She recalls: “But by then I was resigned to these jokes, to the constant reminder that I was an anomaly, an outsider, a kind of freak. I was aware that even if I contributed to our field, my name would also become a punch line. I didn’t know how to resist, except to make clear that I wasn’t trying to fit in, that I knew I was different and to highlight that difference to make it clear.”

I especially loved all the scenes focusing on Katherine’s academic studies. Reading about books, academia, college and university settings greatly appeal to me. Author Catherine Chung provides plenty of real-life math references and establishes a clear sense of Katherine’s struggles as well as her inspiration. Being one of the few women in a male-dominated field, Katherine is constantly questioned, undermined and often taken advantage of by her colleagues. She has several pivotal love affairs, one with a professor during graduate school.

The novel ultimately centers on Katherine’s identity and I can’t reveal too much. It gloriously unfolds. When Katherine decides to tackle the Riemann hypothesis and it leads her to discover her family story and its connection in World World II. Her Chinese immigrant mother remained an enigma to Katherine throughout her life. Living in Michigan and married to Katherine’s white father, she faced extreme prejudices in post-WWII America. “I heard her called a dirty Jap once, and China Doll, and Red China, and while I flushed red with shame, my mother never so much as flinched at the slurs, so that I was never sure that she heard them.” When Katherine travels to Germany to study abroad, she discovers some shocking information about her family connected to both mathematics and WWII. Don’t think you need to be a math whiz for this book to make sense. There’s so much beauty and bravery within these pages.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.


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best books of 2016 so far

Best Books of 2016 so far. I read a lot of historical fiction and memoir so not surprisingly that’s mostly what makes my list. These are listed more or less in the order read.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]

–from my review: This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all.

alligator candy

Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]

Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. review.

rare objects

Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]

–Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. Rare Objects is a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.


Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone [Harper]

–Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. complete review.


The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]

The Man Booker International Prize 2016 Winner It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing. I’ve been a vegan for nearly 10 years and am not too thin.  I stopped eating red meat at 12 and everything but fish at 18. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad.

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown

Clear your schedule and make a big pitcher of iced tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. review.


We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

We Love You, Charlie Freeman stands out as a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. complete review.

heat and light

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]

At turns fascinating, sad, infuriating, provocative and authentic, Heat & Light pulls in the reader from the jump. This well-researched, impressive novel exposes many angles of fracking. In order to capture this present day dilemma, Haigh effectively dips into the past with the Three Mile Island disaster as well as coaling. The novel generously addresses an important hot-button topic with sharp prose and a stellar cast of characters as well as an intriguing story-line. complete review.


An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]

–stunning memoir about an adult daughter coming to terms with her childhood and relationship [or lack of] with her mother..

sun in your eyes

The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]

–from my review: Shapiro delves into the women’s college friendship and its connection to the present. She offers insight, detail and vivid descriptions that allow the reader to understand each woman, their bond and reliance upon one another. Women’s bonds often become broken due to relationships with men (or marriage and families). To this many women (and likely men) will relate. Vivian’s relationship and later marriage to Andy created a rift between the friends. The road trip allows the women to examine their friendship and determine whether or not they should rekindle their friendship, however tumultuous it may have been at times. Jealousy and differing goals certainly pushed and pulled at its core.

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book review: A Perfect Life

a perfect life

A Perfect Life by Eileen Pollack. Ecco| May 2016| 375 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062419170

RATING: ***/5*

I wanted to like this novel more than I did. Unfortunately there’s no such thing as clam chili at Legal Sea Foods or anywhere in New England. It’s not a thing. We eat New England clam chowder. This made me nearly stop reading early on. We drink frappes not frappés. Either include factual details or fabricate everything. McLean hospital isn’t spelled MacLean. That’s an egregious error on page 298. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton spent time there! Everyone knows about the Harvard Square pit and the vagabond kids that hang out there. Author Eileen Pollack also makes sure to mention the famed Citgo sign in Kenmore Square. I’m not proprietary. I’m a realist. If you’re writing about Cambridge, MIT and New England you need to know a few details.

Fortunately the science makes this novel interesting and kept me reading. The novel focuses on a hereditary neurological disease and a woman’s quest to discover the gene responsible for it so that she might help her own family. Using the search for a genetic marker for Huntington’s chorea as an inspiration, the novel focuses on Jane Weiss who lost her mother to Valentine’s disease. She and her sister have a 50/50 chance to get it. While Jane toils for answers, her sister Laurel travels the world partaking in one extreme adventure after another. She’s also part of a dance company. “But whenever I looked in a mirror, I saw my father’s humped nose. I was his daughter, after all. Or so the family myth had it. I was plain, clever, and ambitious, while my younger sister, Laurel, was blessed with our mother’s beauty and charm but doomed to die young.” Feminists will rejoice in reading about a female scientist; feminists might cringe at the personal storyline.

Pollack, who holds a bachelor’s in physics from Yale [as well as an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop], describes working in a lab quite effectively. She writes: “Vic sent our technicians to Star Market to buy rolls of Saran Wrap to mummify our gels, paper towels to wick them, toothpicks with which to transfer bacteria from one plate to the next. We ordered Seal-a-Meal bags from the company that made them for the Jolly Green Giant. Every six months, the labs on our floor held a Tupperware party, at which we badgered the hostess about whether her trays were resistant to formamide and whether or not they would buckle when autoclaved at 120 degrees.” The lab scenes show the strangeness, humor, drudgery and revelations. There’s this: “Achiro, our postdoc from Japan, was slicing mouse brains as thin as a butterfly’s wings and using chopsticks to mount the samples on glass slides.”

Years ago I worked in communications at a biotech company involved in the Human Genome Project. This novel takes place around that time in the late 90s. I’ve also worked in development and Pollack writes exceptional scenes about fundraising efforts. When the novel turns to more personal matters it falls short. Maybe the quest for a genetic marker isn’t enough to sell novels. There needs to be soap opera plot lines. A pregnancy from a one-night-stand and its implications, complications and philosophical implications grows tiresome. Focusing on the sisters and their approach to life knowing they might get a debilitating disease interested me more than any love story. If you want to read the most gorgeously written and riveting novel about science, read Allegra Goodman’s Intuition.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.


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Fall Reading Part 3

woman with gun

<em>Woman With a Gun</em> by Phillip Margolin. Publisher: Harper [December 2014]. Thriller. Hardcover. 320 pages.

RATING: ***/5

Authors gather inspiration from everything. It can be a picture, a newspaper story, memories or personal experiences. The black and white photograph on the cover compelled author Phillip Margolin to create this thriller and also drew me in. The only unusual aspect of this inspiration is that the author purchased the photograph and it’s used as the cover. I’m not familiar with Margolin’s previous novels so I can’t compare his current work to his past work. There are two stories within this novel: one is that of aspiring novelist Stacey Kim and the other is that of Portland-based prosecutor Jack Booth.

A recent MFA graduate, Stacey Kim lives in New York City and works in an administrative position. Margolin writes: “Stacey’s nonexistent social life and mind-numbing job would not have mattered if she were making progress on her novel, but she wasn’t.” One day Stacey Kim visits the MoMA and happens upon an exhibit for photographer Kathy Moran. The photo “Woman with a Gun” mesmerizes her and she decides she needs to know more. Soon after she quits her job and moves to Portland for novel research when she discovers that the photo links to a cold case murder. The DA in the seaside town of Palisades Heights calls in Jack Booth to help with the Raymond Cahill murder case. Photographer Kathy Moran came upon Cahill’s wife Megan during an after-work walk on the beach and snapped the picture of her holding the gun in her wedding dress. Kathy Moran used to be a defense attorney but was disbarred. Jack Booth prosecuted a case where she represented a dangerous drug dealer named Kilbride. Moran won and Booth lost the case. Later when Moran became a drug addict, Booth and the police worked with her to arrest the drug dealer. Booth maintains an attraction to Moran.

Margolin fails to completely enthrall readers with the story or any of the characters. Particularly that of Stacey Kim and her journey to Portland, Oregon. She doesn’t just stop in for a research visit as most writers do but she quits her job to move cross-country. Generally I can’t stop reading a good thriller. While there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns, I didn’t care that much. Perhaps because the Cahill case isn’t solved until the budding novelist starts digging into the cold case.

Women aren’t positively portrayed in Woman with a Gun. They are gold-diggers or manipulative. On Megan Cahill someway says: “’Parnell, thick as he was, finally figured out that Megan was only interested in the millions he was going to make in pro ball, so he tried to break up with her. But, like I said, Megan has a genius IQ and is excellent at problem solving. She told Parnell that she was pregnant.’” The sexist clichés didn’t sit well with me. The beautiful woman who marries first a pro football player and then a team co-owner.

Then there’s the woman as sex object. When Booth describes his attraction to Moran it’s all sexual. During the Kilbride case: “Jack might have spent time wondering why she had not pursed a plea if he weren’t so preoccupied with wondering how Kathy’s breasts would feel when he cupped them or how smooth her thighs would feel when he stroked them.” When Stacey Kim becomes interested in Glen it’s as a potential relationship. Margolin writes: “But now, after the murder and the way Glen had helped her, she was wondering whether there was some way to make the relationship work, because she found that she was enjoying her time with Glen more than she’d enjoyed being with any man in recent memory.” I liked Booth. He’s dark and intriguing. I didn’t need the sections where he fantasized about Moran or remarked on some other woman’s looks. It brought the novel down several levels.

–review by Amy Steele

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.</em>

purchase at Amazon: Woman with a Gun: A Novel


<em>Rooms</em> by Lauren Oliver. Publisher: ECCO [September 2014]. Fiction. Hardcover. 320 pages.</em>

 RATING: ***/5

“How do ghosts see? We didn’t always. It had to be relearned. Dying is a matter of being reborn. In the beginning there was darkness and confusion. We learned gropingly. We felt our way into this new body, the way that infants do. Images began to emerge. The light began to creep in.”

Starts with an appealing set-up: author Lauren Oliver divides the novel by the various rooms and focuses on one character at a time. There’s Caroline Walker and her two adult children, Trenton and Minna, returning to their childhood home after their father Richard’s death. Minna has a daughter, Amy. The Walkers haven’t been in this home for a decade or more since their parents’ divorce. Two ghosts—Sandra and Alice– currently reside in the house. As this family deals with cleaning up the house and the aftermath of the father’s death, Oliver explores their connections and intermingles some of the characters with the ghosts. We find out about the family. The parents split and subsequently the children become alienated from their father. Oliver also eventually discloses how the two ghosts died in the house. Rooms unfolded with promise but wasn’t quite compelling enough. I could put it down and wasn’t invested enough to pore through it. The solid writing needed to be punched up a notch or two. Sometimes when you tell stories from too many angles and too many points-of-view the stories muddle instead of illuminate. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger remains my favorite novel involving ghosts. Effectively creepy and bewitching. As I read it, I felt chills. I adore that book.

–review by Amy Steele

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from ECCO/Harper Collins. </em>

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book review: Arts & Entertainments:

arts and entertainments

Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha. Publisher: ECCO (July 1, 2014). Contemporary fiction. Paperback. 272 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-232246-3.

“Unfortunately Eddie wasn’t ugly. He was good-looking in an entirely conventional way, which turned out to be fatal. He couldn’t turn himself grotesque. Casting directors found him blandly inexpressive, and they made no effort to conceal their finding. He overcompensated, and all the subtlety went out of his work.”

Smart, fun, breezy read about celebrity and the price of fame. Handsome Eddie Hartley teaches drama at the exclusive prep school he attended. The 33-year-old’s married and he and wife have been trying to have a child. Expensive fertility treatments seem the last hope for the couple. Years ago Eddie seemed poised to break-out yet mediocre skills and a pretty face could only prologue Eddie’s so-called career a limited time. Eddie thrived on gleams of fame. He adores it when his students mention his guest-starring TV roles.

After his recent 10-year class reunion someone suggests that he could make money on his former relationship with a current celebrity. He once dated a woman in college who is now a major star of a hit television series. She’s on magazine covers, talked about in tabloids and on entertainment shows. It turns out that Eddie and Martha used to tape themselves. Eddie decides to sell a sex tape and shortly after, his wife finds out she’s carrying triplets. Reality shows ensue for Eddie’s wife (now estranged) and soon after for Eddie.

“But Eddie had wanted attention. Now that he had it, he wasn’t sure what to make of it. Did the quality of the attention matter?”

This is a fast read. You become wrapped up in the behind-the-scenes questionable ethics and mechanics involved in filming a reality show. Who hasn’t seen at least one reality program and wondered what’s real and what’s fabricated or enhanced for audiences? As Eddie enjoys the fast-track to fame his reality crumbles. His sense of self suffers and he begins to question everything.

RATING: ****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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