Saturday, November 10, 2018

Becoming Belle

Title:  Becoming Belle
Author:  Nuala O'Connor
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0735214409 / 978-0735214408

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

Opening Sentence:  "Isabel Maude Pernice Bilton. Isabel Bilton. Issy Bilton. Belle Bilton. All she could think to write was her name."

Favorite Quote:  "A home ought to be a shrine, a solid place for all life to happen in, the joys and the sorrows. It should be a shared place for a family, not some temporary stop-off in which to lay her head..."

Isabel Maude Pernice Bilton (1867-1906) was born into a military household. Her mother had a flair for the dramatic in her theatrical pursuits and in her life. "Mothers are queer creatures, are they not? They love us madly until we display the signs of our true selves, until we're no longer malleable. Then they choose whether to love us anymore. Or not." Her father was the grounded one; he loved and supported Isabel. Her dream was to escape the expectations life set for her. She wanted a life in the theater in London. When an opportunity presented itself, her father supported her dream.

So begins the story of Isabel Bilton, who I discovered was an actual historical figure. The trajectory of her life led from her home to a life in the London music halls and to eventually the title of Countess. It went in cycles from poverty to financial comfort and back again. It led from being Isabel to becoming Belle. Along the way came successes and setbacks, friends and detractors. This book tells a fictional account of her story.

This is to a great extent a story of reinvention. With every success and with every setback, Belle reinvents herself to move forward. Sometimes, it means leaving entire parts of her life behind. "You astonish me the way you invent yourself anew for every situation. As if each time something happens, the life your were made for is about to begin." Some of these beginnings are quite astonishing because of the people Belle leaves behind. The book does not explore the emotional ramifications of those life altering decisions. It is startling in that it almost seems as if she moves on and doesn't look back. It makes her a less sympathetic character, but perhaps that is portrayed as the price of ambition or the way to survival.

Based on the setup and description, I expected this book to be about a strong woman, her independence, her career, and her ambition. It is about an independent woman who owns her bohemian lifestyle. However, much of the books becomes about the men in her life and the repercussions of her relationships. That makes senses given the time and place; it was just not what I expected.

Much of the book is about her relationship with Viscount Dunlo, heir to the Earl of Clancarty. This section of the book is fascinating because in telling Belle and William's story, this book relates a look on the social setup of England at the time. It particularly shines a light on the edicts and laws governing marriage. Let's just say that Belle Bilton was clearly not the type of woman that William's family - wealthy and members of the peerage - felt was acceptable in their family.

In this way, the book accomplishes what I love about historical fiction. It introduces me to a historical character, and it set me on a path to read more about her actual marriage and the laws that applied to it.


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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Auschwitz Lullaby

Title:  Auschwitz Lullaby
Author:  Mario Escobar
Publication Information:  Thomas Nelson. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0785219951 / 978-0785219958

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

Opening Sentence:  "I held my breath during the airplane's steep ascent."

Favorite Quote:  "All human beings are irreplaceable, of infinite value, and nothing can substitute the life that is taken."

A story of love: Helene and Johann meet and fall he in love. She is a nurse; he is a violinist. She is of Aryan descent; he is of Romani Gypsy descent. Society and their families do not approve of their love. Nevertheless, they marry, have five children, and are happy in their lives.

A story of hate and evil:  It is 1943 in Berlin, Germany. The SS arrive at the doorstep of the Hannemann's. All Gypsies are to be sent to camps. History tells us that over 20,000 ethnic gypsies perished at Auschwitz. "I had always wanted to believe that people would wake up and see what Hitler and his followers represented, but no one did. Everyone went right along with his fanatical insanity and turned the world into a starving warring hell."

An impossible choice:  As an Aryan, Helene is exempt from the order. As Gypsy, her husband and children are not. As a wife and even more as a mother, Helene stays with her family. She is arrested and transported along with the children. "I'm a mother ... You all wage your wars for grand ideals, you defend your fanatical beliefs about liberty, country, and race, but mothers have only one homeland, one ideal, one race:  our family."

A story of courage: The family is sent to Auschwitz along with thousands of other Gypsies. History tells us how that ends. This book tells the story of Helene Hannemann. It is the story of a school that was started as a propaganda exercise by the Nazis but that also, through Helene's courage, brought a moment of hope to the children of Auschwitz.

Helene Hannemann is a historical figure. Her story is real and another horrific vision of World War II history. Her courage is inspiring. That is the story the world needs to tell and remember.

Now on to this telling of the story. Some things that leave me thinking...

The lullaby of the title is referenced only twice in the book, and the violin on the cover is not central to the story at all. This does not impact the story, but I expected more given the prominence it's given.

The book begins and ends with a short first person narrative section from an unexpected character; it is also a retrospective on Helene and her impact. History or a literary technique? It is unclear. Either way, to me, it is unnecessary and not needed.

The narrative, with a mother at the heart of such horror, has an emotional distance. The narration tells the story but does not seem to bring it to life. I weep at the idea that the world allowed such atrocities to exist and occur. Yet, it is the history not the narrative that evokes the emotions.

The ending of this book is not entirely true to the history. The author specifies that as a deliberate choice. I think by diluting what actually happened, it does a disservice to this family's history and the history of all those who perished. This history needs to be remembered as it occurred.


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Monday, November 5, 2018

The Late Bloomers' Club

Title:  The Late Bloomers' Club
Author:  Louise Miller
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1101981237 / 978-1101981238

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

Opening Sentence:  "Freckles would have smelled the change in Peggy Johnson, but the window on his side had been rolled all the way down and the air out on Pudding Hill Road was thick with the scent of the fresh cow manure the farmer had spread over his kale field just that morning."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm more interested in what a person thinks and feels anyways, but if we have to look like something, which we do, I'd rather look at someone whose face shows they've lived a little. That they've struggled a little."

This book in its setup reminds me of the movie It's a Wonderful Life. There is a small town and a close-knit community. There is a big business looking to take over and change. There are two siblings, one who flies and seeks the world and one who stays and keeps alive the parents' vision. Both siblings feels like the other is the strong one. A crisis precipitates a reckoning. The love and bond of this small community comes together. Admittedly, this book has no angel showing what life would have been like if... However, other things manage to convey the community impact of one person.

At the heart of this story is Nora, the owner and operator of Miss Guthrie's Diner in the small town of Guthrie, Vermont. She and her sister Kit grew up in Guthrie and the diner. Nora kept it going after the death of her mother and her father's decline. Kit left to pursue other dreams. Part of a close-knit community, Nora nevertheless feels alone, particularly after her divorce.

The plot of the book is simple. A town resident passes away, and for reasons unknown leaves her rather large property to Nora and Kit. So, there is the question of why would a relative stranger leave the sisters this legacy? A big business wants to purchase the property to build a large store. A handsome, eligible, and sympathetic representative from this business arrives to survey the potential of the store. The town is divided between the jobs the store may bring to the local economy and the way it will forever alter the small town. Sisters Nora and Kit are divided between the windfall the sale of the property will bring them and the desire to protect this special property and the town. Added in for good measure is the story of a lost dog that brings an entire community together.

Nora, in this case, is the late bloomer. In that respect, many readers may find her a relatable character. Her story of putting, what she feels may have been, her goals on hold for family obligations is a story that frequently occurs in real life. It is the longing for the path not taken even if you eventually discover is that the path you are on is the one you wanted all along. Sometimes, it takes a crisis to remind us of that.

One of the best parts of this book is the relationship between the two sisters. It feels real. There is sibling rivalry, disagreements, at times distance, but ultimately a basis of strong love and respect. This and the lovely small town feel of Guthrie gives this book a nostalgic feel.

Louise Miller's The City Baker's Guide to Country Living is also set in the town of Guthrie. Both books are simple, sweet stories. No shocking twists, no unpredictable turns. Just feel good books perfect for a cozy afternoon. This book, like the first one, also contains a few recipes for cakes which sound delicious. Do not read when hungry.


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Sunday, November 4, 2018

Clock Dance

Title:  Clock Dance
Author:  Anne Tyler
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0525521224 / 978-0525521228

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

Opening Sentence:  "Willa Drake and Sonya Bailey were selling candy bars door-to-door."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes Willa felt she'd spent half her life apologizing for some man's behavior. More than half her life, actually. First Derek and the Peter, forever charging ahead while Willa trailed behind picking up the pieces and excusing and explaining."

I don't really understand the cover or the title of the book. Is the clock dance the fact that the book synopsis talks about the defining moments of Willa's life? Is the clock dance that Willa finally reaches an age where she decides that she needs to determine her own direction rather than to let it be determined for her? Is the clock dance simply that Willa is older and in the later years of her life?

The cactus and the blue sky on the cover seem to refer to Willa's home place at the beginning of the book. However, that setting has little relevance to the story itself. Most of the story is set in Baltimore, Maryland which has its share of blue skies but is certainly not known for its cacti. It's a good thing that I relied more on the description for the content of the book.

The description sets up a character and a plot that has appeared in many books. A man or a woman reaches - shall we say - a certain mature age. A lot of life has passed. A moment, a family member, an encounter, or some other trigger precipitates a reaction. The reaction leads to a reflection on past decisions and choices. Reflection leads to the possibility of change. The rest of the book becomes about that transition and if and how it occurs. Most of the books rely on creating characters that are sympathetic if not endearing. If we as readers fall in love with the character, then we invest in the story. If we don't, then we read it and move on.

This book is no different. The synopsis presents the defining moments of Willa Drake's life. A phone call leads her to a her son's ex-girlfriend and her daughter. They are complete strangers, but yet were almost family. Complications ensue, yet they fulfill a need in Willa's life, a need perhaps that she did not even acknowledge existed. The story winds to an expected conclusion.

The first part of the book presents, in short glimpses, the points in Willa's life that define her path. These bring her all the way to the age of sixty. The major theme here is the fact that Willa has chosen the path of least resistance and allowed her direction to be determined mostly by the actions and suggestions of others. Then, it seems all of a sudden she finds gumption and is stirred to make different choices - more importantly, to make her own choices.

What makes this book an interesting one, however, is not the main character Willa Drake. The book is her story, but I don't feel like I get to know Willa. As such, I don't feel like I vest in Willa's story. The eccentric cast of characters and relationships she finds in Baltimore don't call for a reader to become involved but rather just provide entertainment value through their daily lives. A precocious child. An independent woman in need of help. An eclectic collection of neighbors. However, then the story seems to come to a rather abrupt end rather than a rounded out conclusion. I am entertained and amused by the characters but find myself somewhat unmoved by Willa's story.


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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Scandal Above Stairs

Title:  Scandal Above Stairs
Author:  Jennifer Ashley
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0399585532 / 978-0399585531

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

Opening Sentence:  "The clatter of crockery on the flagstone floor broke my heart."

Favorite Quote:  "We must help one another in this world, because it is a difficult place. Too difficult for us all to be selfish. It is also fine to ask for help - we should not be too proud to admit when we need it."

Scandal Above Stairs is the second book in the series started in Death Below Stairs. The charm of the characters continues into this book. While it is not absolutely necessary to have read the first book, it is beneficial in this case. Many of the characters from the first book feature in this book. Although the mystery is new, most of the secondary plot lines continue from the first book.

Kat Holloway is still the cook in the same household. This book is once again a little bit of an upstairs downstairs story. The mystery of this book begins with thefts and disappearances of artwork that lead to murder. It is such fun to watch Kat Holloway navigate and solve the mystery while maintaining the upstairs downstairs decorum so central to Victorian English society. Those who know her and appreciate her abilities do not stand on ceremony; to the rest of the world, she is only the cook of the household and hence to be kept in her place.

Besides the mystery itself, what makes this book a charming read is the continuing stories of the characters.

Lady Cynthia is still a woman ahead of her times, living on her own terms rather than conforming to societal expectations. Her family is still trying to marry her off, but she has other plans. A friendship and a romance is perhaps budding.

Tess is a new addition in this book. She comes as a cook's assistant, referred by someone Kat trusts absolutely. Tess is rough around the edges and with a chip on her shoulder. Kat is both manager and mother to this young woman, who has a story of her own. Some of that is revealed through the book; some may emerge.

Daniel McAdam's continues to be the debonair mystery man. He seems to know everyone. He seems able to do anything. A little more of his back story is explored beyond what was in the first book.

Kat herself continues unafraid to speak her mind and takes no nonsense from anyone. Her relationship with her daughter reveals her more vulnerable side. This book takes Daniel and Kat's relationship further as well.

Both books in the series prove to be quick reads with characters about whom I want to learn more. According to the author's website, the third book is titled Death in Kew Gardens and is "coming soon." I can't wait.

If you are interested in the author's other work, note that she writes under three names. As Jennifer Ashley, she writes historical, paranormal, and contemporary romance. As Ashley Gardner, she authors mysteries. Allyson James is the name for the paranormal romance and urban fantasy books. Worth exploring!

I am interested in the fact that Kat Holloway is a cook and apparently a fine one at that. Both books so far have descriptions of ingredients and dishes and the creation of menus that sound tempting. As someone who enjoys cooking, I wonder if a Kat Holloway cookbook will be coming at some point.


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

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Billionaire Raj

Title:  The Billionaire Raj:  A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age
Author:  James Crabtree
Publication Information:  Tim Duggan Books. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1524760064 / 978-1524760069

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was a sunny December day when I found it, abandoned outside a Mumbai police station and draped in a dirty plastic sheet."

Favorite Quote:  "What was the point of being a tycoon if not to take just the kinds of wild risks that would intimidate more conventionally minded businesses - and perhaps, in the process, bring seismic change to industries or countries? The careers of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies had invited similar questions more than a century earlier, as they built the canals, railroads and steamships through which America grew. In their own eras all were pilloried as corrupt and avaricious. Over time, all have gradually been rehabilitated as masters of new technology and pioneers of industrial change rather than robber barons..."

What is the "raj"? Literally translated, the word means rule or government. Historically, in India, the Raj refers to the British rule of India; that is, in fact, how the dictionary defines this term. British rules ended decades ago. Linguistically, the term remains. Historically, the connotation remains.

Translate that to the title of this book, and it makes sense. The book defines a culture of wealth and of power defined by wealth. With its huge and growing population and despite its growing economy, the wealth gap in India is growing. The rich in India are wealthy beyond belief, and the poor survive in unimaginable squalor.

The cover image of this book captures the wealth. This is the picture of a private home in the skies of Mumbai. Antilia is a the private home of an Indian businessman. It houses a single family and has space for 600 staff to maintain the property. The home has 27 levels in a space that may contain a 60 floor high rise elsewhere. It has been deemed the most expensive private home in the world with a value of about $2 billion. Yes, $2 billion.

The cover image also represents the major theme of the book. The home towers over all its surroundings, literally and figuratively. Capitalism versus the inequity for those who live far below. The book presents a well-researched, detailed account of this struggle between the motivation of capitalism and the pull of social equity. It also presents the conversations and efforts at balancing the two.

The "gilded age" analogy is an apt one for an American book audience. In US history, the Gilded Age was a time of industrialization, expansion, and economic growth. The counterpoint to that growth was the poverty of certain societal segments, particularly the immigrant communities.

That analogy provides a framework in which the author explains India's current position. The author explains the larger societal constructs. He also grounds the book in specific stories of specific individuals, adding a much more personal and readable bend to the social commentary. In this, at times, the book is little like a social exposé.

The main character, if you will, is Mukesh Ambani, the business tycoon owner of the home depicted on the cover. To give you a sense of wealth, Mukesh Ambani is ranked nineteenth on the 2018 Forbes Magazine billionaire's list, otherwise known as the three comma list. He is also #32 on the 2018 Forbes Magazine's world's most powerful people list. His company is on the Fortune Global 500.

These statistics stipulate Mukesh Ambani's position, but they are also a barometer of India's growth and reach. The book argues that despite the wealth gap, the corruption, and the cultural strife that exists in India, the country is poised to lead the world as a democracy. "As democracy falters in the West, so its future in India has never been more critical." The book educates and ends with thought provoking questions for the ending to this "story" is not known. What happens next remains to be seen.


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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Call Me American

Title:  Call Me American:  A Memoir
Author:  Abdi Nor Iftin
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1524732192 / 978-1524732196

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

Opening Sentence:  "I was born under a neem tree, probably in 1985."

Favorite Quote:  "I hope that my own example reminds people of what is possible. No one gets to choose when or where to be bor, but what happens after that is what you can imagine."

For a book titled Call Me American, very little of this book actually takes place in America. It is, however, completely about the American dream and about America as a the haven for those seeking freedom and a better life.

Abdi Nor Iftir is a young man born and raised in and around Mogadishu, Somalia. Since the 1990s, the country has been torn apart by strife and civil war. In other words, this young man has had no other world but one of poverty, deprivation, and war. His formal education came through religiously based schools, which focus on the rote memorization of holy texts not the understanding of the life principles that underlie the teachings.

His informal education and his escape came from contraband American movies and music. For a short period of time, this dream came from the American military presence in Somalia. However, in the eyes of a child, the soldiers one day simply left, and they left him behind.

He, however, developed a love of all things American. He taught himself English from the movies and began calling himself Abdi American.

In his real life, he watched his father lose all sense of who and what he was. He watched his mother struggle to keep family and home. He watched his brother's attempt to reach for a better life. He watched friends die. He found his own life in jeopardy. In other words, behind this somewhat sweet and innocent vision of a child watching and trying to be like the actors in the movies is a world that required constant vigilance just to survive. To him, America was and is a land of possibilities and a dream of a better life.

In his pursuit, Abdi Nor Iftir became unique. He was an English speaking Somali who was in the middle of all the strife taking place in the county. This brought him to media attention and made him friends in far away places including America. Sheer chance got him the coveted American visa through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery - the green card lottery. His story outlines the challenges and the scrutiny of that process, and how many times, he came close to being rejected even after winning the lottery.

Abdi Nor Iftir is now trying to make his American dream come true. To some extent, it already has with the visa. However, he finds that the dream - though still possible and still safer and better than the life he left behind - is perhaps a little tarnished.

His story serves the purpose of presenting one real life example of a refugee, who followed all the rules and who went through all the right processes and who made it. The story depicts so well the dream of America - the chance for a better life and the chance to work hard and work honestly for that life. Despite all the hardships, Abdi Nor Iftin is perhaps the lucky one. He did win the lottery. The visa was honored. He had friends who helped along the way. What of all the people for whom that is not the case? After reading this amazing story, that is the question I am left with.


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