Friday, May 31, 2019

Daughter of Moloka'i

Title:  Daughter of Moloka'i
Author:  Alan Brennert
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250137667 / 978-1250137661

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "A wave of Kona storm clouds rolled across the jagged peaks of the Wai'anae Range, arriving in Honolulu with a cannonade of thunder and the kind of wind and rain Hawaiians called lani-pa'ina, 'crackling heavens.'"

Favorite Quote:  "How can this be happening? This is America. Covenants of trust had been broken, faith in law betrayed."

Daughter of Moloka'i is a follow on to Alan Brennert 2010 bestseller titled Moloka'i, but it is not essential to have read that one first. This book does stand on its own and goes in a direction mostly independent of the original book.

Moloka'i was the story of a young Hawaiian girl, Rachel Kalama, in the 1890s. She is diagnosed with leprosy, now called Hansen's disease. As a result, she is wrenched from her family and sent to a quarantined colony of the island of Moloka'i. Rachel does indeed give birth to a baby girl; the baby is removed from the parent's care and removed from the island. The hope is that the baby will remain healthy, no matter the emotional devastation of the parents.

Ruth is the daughter, brought to an orphanage. After a few years, she is adopted by a family of Japanese heritage. After another few years, the family moves to California. Then comes years of settling in, growing up, and making California and the United States home. Then comes World War II and the distrust of Asians. It brings the reality of being judged "less than" because of physical appearance and cultural traditions. Then comes Pearl Harbor and the label of enemy. All of a sudden, home is deemed not yours, and the family is sent to the government established and government run internment camps. What follows is the years of strife, struggle, and life as essentially a prisoner for no reason other than your ethnic background.

As in his other books, Alan Brennert brings to life a time and place with his vivid imagery and his characters that pull you into the story. The story remains a very personal one centered on Ruth and her family. At the same time, the book makes broader statements that remain true today:
  • "If you ask me ... someday this country is going to regret what it's doing today."
  • "Now FDR says, quote, 'Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.'"
  • "If America is not willing to honor its principles ... how can I?"
  • "The war is over, and we can move on with our lives. We're owed that much. To live a quiet, ordinary life again."
This conversation has relevance in this historical context, but also in light of the comparisons of strife due to race, religion, identity, and culture today. This is a history that must never be lessened or forgotten. The fact that this book adds to the conversation and provides that reminder make it a relevant book for today.

The book remains grounded in Ruth's story for it continues beyond the war and winds its way back to Rachel and to Ruth's birth. That is a particularly poignant moment in the book, and also the point at which I think the book should have ended. The book continues on in Ruth's life, but it begins to feel like it is creating an ending for each character, which to me is unnecessary. Aside from this facet, Daugther of Moloka'i is another memorable book from Alan Brennert, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Title:  The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
Author:  Anissa Gray
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2019. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1984802437 / 978-1984802439

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "You do a lot of thinking in jail."

Favorite Quote:  "Handing them off ... and disappearing ... because you think you've lost yourself along with everything else .. that's almost easy. Showing up, when it's everything you can do to crawl and claw your way through this life? That's hard. That much I've done. I'm doing it right now."

Girls and women hunger for many things. There is the universal need for physical nourishment, and then, there is the hunger for love, protection, caring, belonging and other needs often left unsaid.

The understanding that this is the theme of the book comes slowly. The book is slow to start and slow to unfold especially as it seems to begin in the middle of the story. It starts as a woman goes to jail. The crime is unclear. The motivation for the crime is unclear. What is clear is that parents are going to jail and leaving behind daughters.

My initial thought is that the past is going to be unraveled. How did this family at the junction of the Saint Joseph and Portage Rivers in New River Junction, Michigan, get to this point? Hence, initially, I am confused. In fact, the facts of the crime, the motivation behind it, and its impact are never really delved into. That is something I would still like to know, but it does not really matter. At some point, the fact that I want to know becomes a testament to the fact that I am pulled into the story and the characters have become real.

Althea, Lilian, and Viola are the older generation. Kim and Baby Vi are Althea's teenage daughters. Althea and her husband Proctor are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail for a crime no one could imagine them committing. Althea, Lilian, and Viola's stories go back to the their childhood and their own dysfunctional childhood. Those childhood experiences also create the women they are today and their reactions to the current situations. Reader beware, some of the images of that childhood are disturbing. The story becomes about taking the experiences that form you and then creating yourself - the person you choose to be:
  • "Sometimes life can pull a lot out of you, Althea. Just squeeze you dry. And if you don't have a way to get back whatever's good and precious to you, it's like losing your soul."
  • "Some things that happen to you, or the way somebody treat you, sometimes it ain't got nothing to do with you ... That's something it's important to learn. Before you get too old and can't let loose the burden of them things."
  • "Sometimes it's good to view the past from the distance of another time."
Kim and Baby Vi's story is one of the love-hate relationship that can often exist between teenage girls and their mothers. "Daughters carry the hopes & promises of their mothers." Their story is also one of loss - loss of their parents, loss of a community that turns away because of the parent's crimes, and loss of childhood taken away by an adult world. Ultimately, for Kim, the story is also one of guilt.

The best thing about this debut novel is that the characters become real. They develop into complete individuals. In some ways, the cover of the book replicates that. Initially, I look at it and see an abstract image. Then, gradually I see the the curves and edges of the images. Then, it seems that all of a sudden, faces emerge. This book is an impressive debut, and I look forward to seeing what Anissa Gray writes next.


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Friday, May 24, 2019

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

Title:  The Girls at 17 Swann Street
Author:  Yara Zgheib
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1250202442 / 978-1250202444

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I call it the Van Gogh room."

Favorite Quote:  "There is no tragedy to suffering. It is, just as happiness is. To be present for both, that is life, I think."

Two perspectives...

"I do not suffer from anorexia, I have anorexia. The two states are not the same. I know my anorexia, I  understand it better than the world around me. The world around me is obese, half of it. The other half is emaciated. Values are hollow, but meals are dense with high fructose corn syrup. Standards come in doubles, so do portions. The world is overcrowded but lonely. My anorexia keeps me company, comforts me. I can control it, so I choose it."

or

"I did not choose anorexia. I did not choose to starve. But every morning, over and over, I choose to fight it, again."

17 Swann Street is a fictional place. It is an in-patient treatment center in Saint Louis to help those with eating disorders such as anorexia heal / grow / change / transition / .... from one to the other. The stories and the journeys are as diverse as the women themselves. Some are successful; some are not.

This is the world Yara Zgheib pulls me into. Yara Zgheib is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD in International Affairs. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French, and Spanish. She has also fought her own battle against anorexia. This work, her debut fiction novel, comes from that reality.

Anna Roux is one of the girls at 17 Swann Street. She was a professional dancer in Paris. Love, marriage, and her husband's job bring her from Paris to Saint Louis, Missouri. The loss of dancing, the move, loneliness, and so many other fears send Anna in a downward spiral, dealing with anorexia and depression. She is forced - from love and from fear - to seek treatment.

At Swann Street, she meets the other women, each battling her own demons. She continues to be surrounded by her husband's love. She continues to struggle toward recovery.

At one point, Anna notes, "How little of an eating disorder the naked eye can actually see." This book  tells the story from Anna's perspective, from inside of the eating disorder. The idea of a bite creates extreme fear. The isolation she feels takes her far away even though she has love and support. Each moment feels like a battle. She bears witness to the struggles of others; her successes and failures symbolize whether or not she will succeed or fail. Time with her thoughts brings back memories of the past and the unresolved emotions that surround childhood trauma.

Anna's journal like story is punctuated by notes from her medical file. The matter of fact, unemotional recording of her conditions is the jarring context in which I read her story.

The story and the characters are compelling. I feel myself at 17 Swann Street as if the world outside fades away as these women struggle moment by moment. The women and the place becomes real to the point that I wonder if the place actually exists - not treatment centers which I know do but this actual place which I know does not. I hope that Anna will recover but fear that she may not.

A memorable story!


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Monday, May 20, 2019

Here and Now and Then

Title:  Here and Now and Then
Author:  Mike Chen
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2019. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0778369048 / 978-0778369042

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "No pulse beat beneath the skin."

Favorite Quote:  "Look, it's possible to start over. Completely over. You survive, you adapt. You can find love and be happy and live. You can do that while still honoring your past - even when your past is taken from you. The only thing you can do is run with it and turn it into something good."

What would you do to protect your child? For most parents, the answer requires no thought - anything and everything I possibly could. The question and, for the most part, the answer is universal. It provides the emotional connection to a story about a father and his daughter.

For Kin Stewart, the question becomes all the more complicated because his daughter was never supposed to have been born. Kin has lived for eighteen years in San Francisco. He is happily married and a father to a teenage daughter Miranda. He has health issues, including blackout and memory loss.

What he shares with no one is that he knows the reason why. He is actually from the year 2142. He was sent back in time on a mission and got stranded there. He has been stranded for all this time. His health issues are a time travel illness. Now, a team has arrived from 2142 to "rescue" him. In 2142, he has only been gone for a few weeks, but for him, it's as if a lifetime has passed.

The question is does Kin want to be rescued? He has a wife, a child, and a life now. He also has one in 2142, but he does not remember that life or that family. He wants to choose the one he knows and loves.

Kin, however, is not given a choice. "We're all different people all through our lives, but that's okay, as long as you remember all the people you used to be." Kin is asked to forget, his wife and daughter labeled an aberration that should never have been.

Now, the dilemma is how can Kin adapt to life "back home" in 2142. That life presents its own friendships, relationships, and love. However, how can he simply walk away from a wife and child he has loved and built a life with?  The dilemma deepens when his daughter is threatened. What to do? How to balance the pull of both of his lives and of the wonderful people in both of his lives? Can he save both?

Add to this premise the assumption that all moments in time exist simultaneously. Thus, it is possible to return to any moment in time. The cardinal rule in Kin's work has been to cause no disturbance and alter nothing such that the future remains unaltered. This, of course, is the rule he breaks by building a life in what, for him, are years stranded.

From this premise, Mike Chen builds a story that is part adventure and party emotional family story. Science fiction and family drama make for an interesting mix. I expect what Kin will want to do as a father. However, I completely do not expect where this book goes and how the ending brings it full circle.

"I'm asking you to take a leap of faith. Sometimes when nothing makes sense, it's the only thing you can trust." That's pretty much what I feel about this book. Take a leap of faith and enjoy the ride.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Talk to Me

Title:  Talk to Me
Author:  John Kenney
Publication Information:  GP Putnam's Sons. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0735214379 / 978-0735214378

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ted Grayson has been pushed out of an airplane."

Favorite Quote:  "Alone with their thoughts. The bravest thing. Today we would do anything to run from our own thoughts. The noise of our minds, the voices. So we check the phone, the text, the email, the alert. Why look inside for the answer when you can look outside?"

This book begins as if picked from the headlines these days. A news anchor - a man with a long, well respected, public career - makes an entirely inappropriate comment to a young woman. The moment is captured on camera. The video is posted online. It goes viral. The commentary comes from all sources, reviling the man.

Initially, I am not sure that I want to read fiction about today's headlines. I don't know that I want to follow along on a conversation between his defenders and his accusers. Who is right? Who is wrong? Who wins? Who loses? The reality of that is enough to not need the fiction right now.

Much to my surprise, the book turns in a different direction - a far more compelling fiction. The book turns into a story of a father and a daughter. "Why are we here? What's the point? After we are stripped bare, naked before the world, after everything is taken away, all we have is our children. And we have two basic, fundamental jobs as parents. To love them. To protect them." It also becomes a commentary on quickly changing public opinion especially as influenced by today's overabundance of "news" sources and open forums on which to state that opinion. "The history of the world is the history of miscommunication."

The personal story is that of Ted Grayson, an almost sixty-year old TV anchor. He has seen considerable professional success and is well respected in this field. His personal life, however, is a shambles. His time on the road as a reporter and his focus on his career leaves him estranged from his family. Claire, his wife of thirty years wants a divorce.  His daughter Franny harbors a lifetime of regrets and resentments. At the same time, Franny wants to somewhat follow in her father's footsteps. Her career is beginning; she writes for an online website. It purports to be "news" but is truly aiming for the sensationalist clicks. Her father's downfall offers Franny a chance to build her own career as her boss offers her the opportunity to write and publish a interview. Where the conversation between father and daughter goes, I leave to your imagination or reading. What a sensationalist website does with that conversation, I also leave to your imagination or reading. Bonds are broken and healed.

The broader social commentary of this book is all about social media and its "news". The basis of this book is a casually made video that is posted online and that goes viral. Ted Grayson's fate is decided in the court of popular opinion based on this video. A sensationalist website preys upon a private conversation to gain "clicks" and exacerbate the situation. What they do may be legal, but ethics is a whole other question. Public opinion, just as quickly, turns on another video.

We knows this happens. Unfortunately, we see it in the daily headlines these days. This book does a great job of laying it out as a story. It is really this process that is the story of this timely book. The book is entertaining but does leave me reflecting on this very serious reality.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The East End

Title:  The East End
Author:  Jason Allen
Publication Information:  Park Row Books. 2019. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0778308391 / 978-0778308393

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "After sunset, Corey Halpern sat parked at a dead end in Southampton with his headlights off and the dome light on, killing time before the break-in."

Favorite Quote:  "If only he could write as he saw things, maybe this place wouldnt' be so bad, though each time he'd put pen to paper and tried to describe these solo hours at the ocean, or anything else, the words remained trapped behind locked doors deep inside his head."

The East End is not a mystery. You know in the first few pages who dies and how. The East End is not a thriller either although it is a very quick read. The East End is more a look at the difference between the economic ends of the Hamptons - those who can afford the lavish, expensive summer homes and those who spend their lives working in those homes. Beyond that, The East End is a story full of troubled, flawed characters making some terrible choices in efforts to make the right ones.

The plot is a fairly straight forward one covering a period of only about 3 days. Corey and his mother Gina work in the Sheffield's home. One night, he witnesses a death at the Sheffield home. It turns out the death leads to a bigger secret about Leo Sheffield. Corey is not the only witness. The question becomes what will Leo Sheffield do to keep his secret.

The characters all run fairly close to a stereotype. Corey is the handsome, brooding teenager from the working class side of the tracks. He has his flaws, but underneath has a good heart. Gina is a struggling single mother unable to break the cycle of poverty, alcoholism, drug use, and a violent ex. Leo Sheffield is the businessman, who believes he has to keep up appearances and thinks that money is the answer. Sheila, Leo's wife, is not a true participant in the events of this book but is a strong presence as the snobby, pretentious rich woman.

The characters do not develop beyond the stereotype.That also means that not much unexpected truly happens in the book. There are no sudden shifts in character and no huge twists in the story.  Perhaps if the intent of the book is to highlight the stereotypical differences of the Hamptons society, that is exactly the point.

The book is a very dark one - literally and figuratively. Even with the short period of time the book covers, much of what happens happens at night. Through the characters, the book highlight several serious issues - a suicide attempt, a struggle with alcohol and drugs, a near rape, a need to hide sexual identity, and a penchant for risk taking. These are the undercurrents to the story and create an even darker story.

With the darkness and the short time frame, the author manages to create an intensity that keeps me turning pages even though there is no real mystery to be solved. I keep reading to find out what happens to each of these characters. Each of them makes some horrible choices - breaking and entering, alcohol, drugs, violence, theft, and more - at some point. At the same time, I find myself feeling sorry for all of them (well, all of them except for Gina's ex).

What is interesting about the ending is that it does not seem to be exactly an ending. I turn the last page and think ... but what happens to them. What happens next? The fact that I invest enough into the characters and the story to want to know says to me:  good read perfect for the beach when summer arrives.


The East End Blog Tour
Author: Jason Allen
ISBN: 9780778308393
Publication Date: 5/7/19
Publisher: Park Row Books

Author Bio:
Jason Allen grew up in a working-class home in the Hamptons, where he worked a variety of blue-collar jobs for wealthy estate owners. He writes fiction, poetry, and memoir, and is the author of the poetry collection A MEDITATION ON FIRE. He has an MFA from Pacific University and a PhD in literature and creative writing from Binghamton University, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches writing. THE EAST END is his first novel.

Book Tour:

Author Q&A:


Q: What inspired you to write THE EAST END?


A: Initially, I mainly wanted to illuminate the inner lives of the working class people of the Hamptons. I grew up there, and as a working class person in a seasonal resort area that attracts the wealthiest of the wealthy, as the Hamptons does, it’s impossible not to compare what “they” have versus what “we” have. I’d always been fascinated by just how extreme the disparity was between the multi-millionaire visitors and those of us who scraped by year after year, and that tension played out in so many ways each summer season. So I wanted to explore class, but also addiction, secrecy, obsession, and to do my best to write a complex story that highlights that tension among the disparate classes of people in the Hamptons. What I found over time, after delving into the depths of each character’s psyche, is that I truly believe that we are all more than the assumptions others might impose upon us.


Q: What are some of the main themes in the book or some of the key takeaways?


A: The main themes are class (specifically class-divide), alcoholism and addiction, secrecy, obsession, loneliness and longing, and identity (including sexual orientation/ identification). The key takeaway, I hope, is that we should try our best not to judge any book by its cover. I had an easy time empathizing with the teenaged character, Corey, even as he starts breaking into houses, and also for his mother, Gina, even as she’s hitting bottom with alcohol and pills and is relatively absent from her two sons’ daily lives. I was surprised to find how much I cared about the billionaire character, Leo Sheffield, when in the past I could have easily written him off as just another greed-driven destroyer of the world, someone who deserves no empathy—but it was gratifying to care about them all, despite their flaws and bad decisions.


Q: What are the commonalities you discovered between the elite and the middle-class characters?


A: Everyone suffers. Everyone loves. Everyone longs for something or someone. We’re all so flawed, all bumbling along through our lives; we’re all having a human experience, no matter our socioeconomic status. It just so happens that it will always be a bit harder for working class people in general—hardest of all for the poorest of the poor.


Q: What was the hardest part about writing your debut book?

A: Maintaining relationships, maybe? It’s understandable that it might not be easy for most people to be in a relationship with someone who wants to spend days off from work in their pajama pants, shut away in a room for hours at a time. The work itself, I honestly love it—even when it feels like hard work. It’s incredible that after many years of writing, now I get to work on my next novels as others are reading The East End. I guess the hardest part is what happens after the writing is finished. I want everyone to like it… haha.


Buy Links:

Social Links:
Twitter: @EathanJason



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Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Witch of Willow Hall

Title:  The Witch of Willow Hall
Author:  Hester Fox
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1525833014 / 978-1525833014

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was the Bishop boy who started it all."

Favorite Quote:  "Fairy stories they might be, but every story starts from a seed of truth; if not, why would we be drawn to them as we do?"

Willow Hall has a tainted and tragic past. The Montrose family, who now calls Willow Hall home has a tainted and tragic past. The house and the family share that trait. The question is whether that past will reach out into the present and destroy this family and its future.

Father, Mother, and the three Montrose sisters - Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline - leave Boston permanently to take up residence at Willow Hall in New Oldbury. A scandal, which is gradually revealed thorughout the book, drives the Montrose family away from Boston and from society in general. A scandal also surrounds Willow Hall itself and the family of its former owner, John Barrett.

One aspect of the book I don't understand is the description and eventual reveal of the initial scandal that sends the Montrose family running from Boston. Of all the possible scandalous situations to put into a story, that seems an extreme choice. It is also never explained in the book, and nothing really comes of it. The points made are that it is scandalous beyond belief, that it is loathsome to society and to family, and that the extent of it must never become public. The reasons for it could probably be an entire book on its own. The back story of how and why is never explained in this book.  It remains an unresolved, jarring note - one that may perhaps be more memorable than the main story itself.

Interestingly, this scandal is not the main story of this book. It is the background that precipitates the events. The main story, however, is made clear by the book's title - witch. This book is about a young woman coming to terms with who and what she is and about taking control of it. In the center is Lydia. "It is one thing to know what to do, but another to find the strength and courage to do it." That is Lydia's journey. The first step is to acknowledge and accept. The second is to learn what to do. The third is to actually do it and to control it.

Embedded in the story are the emotions of family love and a romance. Surrounding it are ghost stories and the setting of an atmospheric old house, an abandoned mill, a pond, and a forest. At the heart of it is also a sibling rivalry to an extreme. "I don't know what it is about my sister, but she has the power to cut me down like no one else. My insecurities come rushing back, winding their way up my bones like ivy." There is even a duel thrown in for good measure.

Ultimately, this book is a romance and family drama much more so than about witches and ghosts. Either way, suspend disbelief, and the setup makes for a very quick, entertaining read. The Witch of Willow Hall is a debut novel. The fact that the back story of the scandal is not explained in this book and that the ending is the beginning of new relationships makes me wonder if other books are planned following the same characters. I suppose it remains to be seen.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.