Friday, October 11, 2019

Night of Miracles

Title:  Night of Miracles
Author:  Elizabeth Berg
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  052550950X / 978-0525509509

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

Opening Sentence:  "Surely you've had this happen."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is a mystery, death is a mystery, and everything in between is a mystery, too. The main thing is, people who are here, are here, for their own unique time upon earth."

The Story of Arthur Truluv was a story about loneliness and about friendship that can be found in the unlikeliest of places and about the family we create. For that, it was a sweet, sentimental, and heart warming story set in the small town of Mason, Missouri.

This book continues on the story of this small town. Lucille and Maddy - primarily Lucille - from the first book feature in this one also. This book introduces a new cast as well with their own need for support and community. This book is a sequel in the sense that it is the same place and some of the same characters. It stands alone in that reading the first book is not essential to following or understanding this story.

This is a book about recognizable, ordinary people living every day lives. Lucille is reflecting on age and the people she has lost. Maddy is contemplating marriage and the changes that will bring. Abby is facing illness and an uncertain future. Monica is looking for love, sometimes in all the wrong places. Iris is looking for a new beginning.

As with the first, the characters of this book embody a "character" - the lonely older woman, the divorced woman starting over, the ill mother, the happily engaged having misgivings, the father trying to keep home stable as his wife battles illness, and the little boy who steals everyone's heart.

This book is about not character growth or development. It is not about major plot twists or drama. It is not about depth of story. What happens is about what you would expect to happen. The book is just a quiet, sweet story about community and the families we create.

Mind you, this book is not as spiritual or metaphysical as the title would suggest. Visits from the angel of death also happen in this book, but that is an odd note in a book that is other wise about community and "regular" people. The other odd note in the book is the death of a character and the circumstances that is placed in. A bathtub? Really? To me, that too is not in keeping with the otherwise quiet and sanitized tone of this book.

This is not a lighthearted book either. Lucille's musings are focused on the losses in her life. A young mother fights a life-threatening illness. Another works through the loneliness of betrayal.

What resonated about The Story of Arthur Truluv also resonates about this book. It is a book about recognizable, ordinary people living ordinary lives. This one just does not strike the chord quite as strongly as the first one did.

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

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Kinship of Secrets

Title:  The Kinship of Secrets
Author:  Eugenia Kim
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1328987825 / 978-1328987822

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

Opening Sentence:  "On a chilly summer night, a newsmonger trudged uphill to a residential enclave of Seoul, the last neighborhood on his route."

Favorite Quote:  "... change happens with the slip of a word ... and one's view of the past and future were mutable."

War divides families in so many ways. This has been a reality through history and continues to be a reality for so many throughout the world. It is in fact the reality of the author's family. This fiction is written based on Eugenia Kim's own family history - modified and fictionalized but, at the heart of it, true.

Korea was divided into two sovereign nations in 1948, the point at which this book begins. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953 although technically no peace treaty has ever been signed. Technically, the war still goes on.

This book tells the story of a family - specifically, two sisters - divided and then reunited. In 1948, Najin and Calvin Cho leave South Korea for the United States. The seek better opportunities and leave with the hope of one day coming back. They are parents to two daughters - Miran and Inja. They take Miran with them and leave Inja behind with extended family. The decision is based on practicalities - health, travel, and economics. Even more so, perhaps, it is promise to return.

In alternating chapters, this book tells the story of Miran and Inja. Miran grows up, safe and secure in the United States. Yet, she faces the challenges of a first generation immigrant. She is also continually in the shadow of the sister left behind and aware of her parents' sorrow. Inja survives the harrowing years of the war; she grows up poor and at risk but always loved. It takes years, but finally at age sixteen, Inja is reunited with her parents. At this point, her parents and sister are not the family she knows, and the United States is not the culture she knows. That brings with it its own transition and challenges.

As is common with books that alternate perspectives, one side of the story calls to me more so. In this case, it is the Inja's story. Hers is the story of war, survival, and the immigrant experience. It is the story of the child left behind and then of the child separated from all that she knows and thrust into a new culture and a new life. She is always surrounded by love and yet faces hardship after hardship. Miran's story is the quieter one also of the immigrant experience and also of a child who grows up knowing that her parents' life is not complete with just her. She sees a longing in her parents for her sister that, in her thoughts, sometimes surpasses the love they show her.

The one jarring note in this book is the ultimate secret of why the Najin and Calvin take Miran and leave Inja behind. To me, that history becomes an unnecessary distraction from the heartbreaking choice to leave a child behind. It creates a difference between the two sisters that undermines that choice by placing an external burden on it. It is an unneeded note in an otherwise powerful and moving book.

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

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Rain Watcher

Title:  The Rain Watcher
Author:  Tatiana de Rosnay
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1250200016 / 978-1250200013

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

Opening Sentence:  "I will start with the tree."

Favorite Quote:  "... how come  his own mother had never noticed? The answer was clear, then. It was because she had never wanted to see it."

A family with secrets and history. A father whose passion is trees. A mother who marries in a whirlwind romance and then has a lifetime of secrets. A son who has yet to feel comfortable in his own skin, particularly around his family. A daughter with a dysfunctional marriage and a past buried in guilt. A beautiful city about to drown as the river floods. A few days time but a lifetime of memories and history.

This is the background of The Rain Watcher set in Paris as a family comes together to celebrate the father's birthday. As you might suspect, this is cause of reflection and conversations and history and perhaps a reckoning. You might expect this to be a powerful novel of strong emotions about a city, about family, about love and about acceptance.

Except that it is really not. Even now, I am not really sure what the point of the book really is. There are so many story lines opened and questions asked. None of them really go anywhere. Affairs. Accidents. Survivor's guilt. Abuse. Sexual identity. Parent-child bond. Marriage. Infidelity. Family expectations. Suicide. All of these familial ties wind back and forth through time and the history of this family; it is easy to get lost. All are set within the impending doom of the Seine flooding except that there is never a climactic culmination to that sense of anticipation.

An interesting naturalist note in the book. Paul Linden - the father - is a world renowned tree expert. The trees are his passion. You might even say the trees are his life. The how and the whys of this are never really explained except that the point is made that this passion seems to exclude pretty much everything else in his life. His two children are named Tilia and Linden. Tilia is a group of about 30 species of trees native to the Northern Hemisphere. Linden is the name given to the European varieties of that tree. Coincidence? Probably not, but then again not explained in the book.

The message I walk away with from this book is that children, no matter how old they get and no matter how successful they become in other parts of their lives, still seek and need their parents' approval. That approval may never come. Logically, the child (even adult children) may realize that it may never come, but the need for it never really goes away. A sad and emotional reality that unfortunately does not quite take center stage in this book. The stories are opened and the questions are asked. However, they don't really go anywhere. Perhaps, there is a greater metaphorical point to be made in that structure. Unfortunately, I don't get it.

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Well-Behaved Woman

Title:  A Well-Behaved Woman:  A Novel of the Vanderbilts
Author:  Therese Anne Fowler
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250095476 / 978-1250095473

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

Opening Sentence:  "When they asked her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredation, the mansions and balls, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the rifts - when they asked why she did the extreme things she'd done, Alva said it all began quite simply:  Once there was a desparate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out."

Favorite Quote:  "... a change in fortune doesn't change who a person is. It reveals your true self, the one you were maybe hiding away."

The well-behaved woman of the title is Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva Smith was the name she was born with. Vanderbilt was the name she married into, and Belmont came later. While Smith may not be a recognized name, the Vanderbilt and Belmont names have both provided this nation with a legacy. Alva is a part of that legacy, with a contribution all her own.

This book is part of a growing trend of fictionalizing the lives of actual historical figures. The books don't simply reference historical characters. They create an image of what that life may have been like. Rule #1 of reading these books is to always remember that the books are not biographies. They are not history. They are a carefully crafted fiction - an author's imaginings of conversations and emotions and of events of which there may be no history. Typically, the works are researched so as to be based in history, but they are not history.

What I love about historical fiction is that it sends me in search of the history. I likely would never have picked up a biography of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. This fiction though did set me reading briefly about her actual life. What I learned is fascinating. Alva's legacy finds a home in the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument in Washington DC. Alva was a notable member of the National Woman's Party, which was active in promoting the women's suffragette movement and critical in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

I learned most of this from researching nonfictional sources about Alva's life but unfortunately not this book. The book does get there but late and only briefly. The bulk of this fictional story focuses on Alva's life as a young woman, her quest to marry William Vanderbilt, and their married life. It speaks to a life of poverty and a determined, concerted effort to emerge from that life through the way open to women at that time - marriage. It is about a marriage with its conveniences, its compromises, and its betrayals. It speaks to the gilded age of New York city, the lifestyles of the rich, and the glamorous homes they built. It is about the navigation and machinations to achieve and maintain a social strata and pecking order if you will.

I do wish the focus of the book had been flipped. It ends almost as Alva's true contribution to this nation's history begins. This story takes the history of a strong woman and makes it about money and marriage rather than work. It does lead me to research and learn about that contribution but unfortunately fails to capture it in the book itself. Interesting but leaves a lot missing.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Widow of Pale Harbor

Title:  The Widow of Pale Harbor
Author:  Hester Fox
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1525834266 / 978-1525834264

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

Opening Sentence:  "This was the fourth dead raven to appear on Sophronia Carver's front path in as many weeks, and there was no explaining it away as coincidence this time."

Favorite Quote:  "A bird in a cage was no safer than a bird in a bush if someone chose to reach their hand in and pluck it out. At least the bird in the bush had the chance to fly away."

The Widow of Pale Harbor is Hester Fox's sophomore novel. Her debut was The Witch of Willow Hall. Both books have a similar structure and feel. The main character is a woman. Both are set in small towns and around atmospheric, old houses. Both have elements of witchcraft and past scandals and a very Gothic feel. Both have an element of romance.

This book adds a recurring reference to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which adds interest. In fact, it prompts an interest in rereading some of his amazing works. Interesting, this October marks the 170th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps explaining the time and the references in this book. The setting for this book is in Maine in 1846; it is concurrent with the final years of Edgar Allen Poe so his work is the "current" work of the day.

The Witch of Willow Hall ultimately was about a young woman finding her voice and owning her strengths and abilities. I enjoyed that story. The Widow of Pale Harbor unfortunately veers too much in the direction of a romance, which is not my preferred genre of reading.

Let's set the stage. Sophronia (Sophie) is a wealthy young widow living a secluded life in Pale Harbor. She is deemed a witch and responsible for the death of her husband. She is the scapegoat for all that goes wrong in the town. Gabriel Stone is the new transcendentalist minister in town except for the fact that he is not really a minister. He is here trying to fulfill the dream of his dead wife. Strange happenings - dead animals, warnings, threats, and more - abound in this town. The mystery is who is truly responsible.

Ultimately, this book ends up being more Gabriel's story and more romance than anything else. Unfortunately, Gabriel's character does not ring true. He is set up as a man devastated by his wife's death making his purpose in life to fulfill her dream. He meets Sophie, and there is instant attraction and an instant love story. The "instant" belies the depth of his feelings for his wife. The book also reveals in a sentence or two the back story of Gabriel and his wife. The events so succinctly written also belie the idea of Gabriel's grief at her death and the idea that he will dedicate his life to making her dream a reality.

The mystery of the book also has a very prosaic, very worldly ending. The supernatural and Gothic elements are lost in those very human, very criminal actions.

What made The Witch of Willow Hall work was the strong female main character and her growth and progression through the book. Sophie, the widow in this book, demonstrates no such change. She is depicted more as a victim, which makes for less engaging reading.

Although I was not the reader for this particular book except for the Edgar Allen Poe references, I do look forward to seeing what Hester Fox writes next. I enjoy the atmospheric setup and hope that the next book comes back to telling the story of a strong woman rather than that of a romance.

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

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Lost Letters of William Woolf

Title:  The Lost Letters of William Woolf
Author:  Helen Cullen
Publication Information:  Gradon House. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1525892088 / 978-1525892080

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

Opening Sentence:  "Love letters have  only one hope for survival."

Favorite Quote:  "You were my best friend. Whenever anyone hurt me, you made me better. Whenever I was scared, it was into your arms I ran. Whenever I was lost, you found me. So what do you do when the person you count on most in the world is the person that's hurting you? Where do you go? To whom do you turn?"

There is a song called Escape or The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes. That is the soundtrack of this book for me. If you know the song, you know how that story ends. The question is ... how does the story of William Woolf end? The book itself poses the question.

"It wasn't just their physical selves that had changed, though, that part was easily understood; what confused him was trying to identify when their feelings had altered. Was it a million little incremental changes over a long period of time? Or something obvious he had missed. If their essential selves were still the same, couldn't they find each other again? Or had they traveled too far down separate roads to reconnect in a different but happier place?"

That question arises in so many relationships somewhere along the way. The story lies in what each person in the relationship does with that question. What decisions are made? What compromises? What mistakes? At some point, what is done that is irrevocable.

The fact that this is the main point of the book is not clear from the beginning. William Woolf works at the Dead Letters Depot, a final repository of letters that for some reason or another have been undeliverable. William's journey of self-reflection begins with letters addressed to "My Great Love." I expect the book to be more about the letters and the potential and the mystery of letters that never arrive. To me, the letter has the potential to change lives. In this day and age, letter writing is unfortunately a dying art. I know, however, that I have certain letters in my life that are a part of my history and that I will hold on to forever.

I am a little disappointed that this is not the direction the book takes. As it evolves into a book about relationships, the letters and the Dead Letter Depot becomes just the background environment. The story the book tells still has relevance and emotion for many people. It is just not the story I expected to read.

Intermingled with the story of the marriage is William and Clare's history and their individual disappointments with the direction life has taken. William's goals for developing his work at the Depot into more seems thwarted at every turn. Clare has given up her passion to purse a career that supports financial security. Loneliness exists in this togetherness, and loneliness leads to dreams and other decisions that do not belong in a marriage. At the same time, their history demonstrates what brought them together.

There is also no real surprise or twist to the story of that relationship. It is a quiet exploration of what it means to love in the context of a long-term marriage. In that, the book makes a sad statement. "... the older I get, I realize that love is not enough on its own. It's the day-to-day reality of living with someone that really counts? What's love got to do with it?" To me, it depends on the definition of love and commitment. Love should have everything to do with it just as I wish the Dead Letter Depot had more to do with this story.

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

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl

Title:  A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl
Author:  Jean Thompson
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501194364 / 978-1501194368

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was the end of lilac season, that brief, heady time."

Favorite Quote:  "Most marriages had their share of bad spells, or of just bumping along. Laura knew that now. Knew that most people stayed married in spite of the unhappy parts. They hung on and waited for things to get better, or they walled themselves off from each other, or built their enmity for each other into a solid and enduring structure."

Grandmother. Mother. Daughter. Evelyn. Laura. Grace. All are women. All are girls. These women are three generations of a family in a small Midwestern town. This is a book not about a story but about women and the choices they make and the reverberations of those choices through the generations.

The choices most influential in their lives have to do with the men in their lives. All three in one way or another cater to the men in their lives.

Evelyn once dreams of getting a PhD. An affair in college leads to an unplanned pregnancy. Fear leads to a hasty marriage of convenience. She fulfills the duties of her marriage but builds a lifetime of resentments for the dreams she walked away from.

As a child, Laura finds her mother distant perhaps because Evelyn dreams of another life. Laura goes completely the direction. She is not looking for a career. Home and a family are her calling. Unfortunately, the man she marries turns out to be a drunk. Early on in their marriage, Laura finds herself increasingly isolated because of her husband's offensive behavior. To make matters worse, their son Michael, unfortunately is also in and out of rehab.

Grace is still young, at about 20 years old. She has watched her mother and learns the lessons from her mother's behaviors. Will she make the same choices as her mother and her grandmother? Will she change the paradigm to live a different life?

Evelyn and Laura make the choices they do, and then live in the unhappiness of the consequences and the unhappiness of the path not taken. Grace's story is still beginning so perhaps there is hope. However, for the most part, that sense of sadness permeates the book.

Be prepared. This book is a slow moving contemplation of these ideas and not really about a plot line. That meandering pace and the overwhelming sadness make this book a challenge. The bigger challenge to the book though is the characters. The men in the book range from needy to cruel with none aware of or caring of the women in their lives. In other words, the men are one-dimenstional, serving only to accentuate the women's unhappiness. None of the three women stand out or make a lasting impression.

Much has been written about the choices you make when caught in an unhappy situation. Either change the situation or change yourself. The "situations" in this book cover a wide range - unexpected pregnancy, addiction, war, infidelity, illness, death and even more. The book is mostly about the impact of these factors on these women and their increasing resentment and unhappiness. It is considerably less about these women standing up and determining the course of their lives in these circumstances. I spend part of the time feeling sad for them and part of the time wanting to jolt them into action and make a different choice.

So, sadness and annoyance in equal measure seem to be sum total of this book for me.

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