Monday, June 18, 2018

Women in Sunlight

Title:  Women in Sunlight
Author:  Frances Mayes
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  045149766X / 978-0451497666

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

Opening Sentence:  "By chance, I witnessed the arrival of the three American women."

Favorite Quote:  "A house in Tuscany where they know no one. Everything open to reinterpretation."

The women in sunlight are at a certain age and at a certain stage of life. Are the junctures in their lives endings or new beginnings? The women are Julia, Camille, and Susan, all in their sixties. They meet by chance near their homes in the United States. They find a bond and shared experiences. They all find themselves at a crossroads.

A bold plan and the financial ability to make it happen leads them to a beautiful home in Tuscany. There, they meet Kit. Kit is a fellow American living in San Rocco, Tuscany working on her book. For the four, this becomes a journey in friendship, reflection, self-discovery, and new beginnings.

In some ways, this book is very similar to Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun. Find the perfect house. (Big caveats: Would you have the ability to afford it as these women do?) Pack up and come to Italy. Enjoy something about the house or make a discovery. Settle in as if you have always been there. Explore and reflect.

Unlike Under the Tuscan Sun, this book then is not about the renovation of the house, but rather about the new adventures these women encounter in Italy. Under The Tuscan Sun, however, does a much better job of painting a picture of an idyllic Tuscan location; this book does not leave the same imagery. The tone of the book, however, is very similar. Make a new discovery. Find some interesting character. Reflect and make decisions on the past and the future. Repeat many times from the start to the finish of the book. This is the feel good story of the book.  However, it is a little too idyllic for my taste. Everything seems to come or resolve itself too easily.

Added to this story is Kit's story or rather, I should say, Margaret's story. Kit has been living in Italy for ten to fifteen years. She is writing a book on her mentor Margaret. The story of the mentor becomes a part of this book. These reflections are by far my least favorite part of the book. Margaret is not a character in the book but, at the same time, seems to take up a lot of the story. I am still not entirely sure why. What does Margaret have to do with this story?

As with Under the Tuscan Sun, I want to like this book better than I do. The ideas of reinvention at any age and the strength of friendships between women all appeal to me. The idea that these women display the gumption to move so far away from what they know is appealing. Of course, the move and the sojourn in Tuscany is idealized, but the idea still intrigues.

Unfortunately, the story itself seems to drag. There are the back stories of these women. There is Margaret's story. There are the four families. At times, it is just confusing as to which of the women is involved with which story line. It just never quite comes together, and the character never quite develop enough. Sadly, I don't invest in the story beyond the initial draw of the idea.

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Coincidence Makers

Title:  The Coincidence Makers
Author:  Yoav Blum
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250146119 / 978-1250146113

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

Opening Sentence:  "Look at the line of time."

Favorite Quote:  "'At the far left ... are all of the people who really think that everything is completely coincidental ... And on the other end are all of the people who are sure that there's a reason for everything ... The people standing at the two extremes are the happiest people in the world. At both ends. Do you know why? because they they don't ask why. Never. Not at all. There's no point, because either they believe there's no answer, or they believe that someone is responsible for the answer and that it's none of their business. But these people aren't even one-thousandth of the population. Most people stand in the range between them. No, they don't stand. They go, they move. They constantly move in one direction and then the other. They think they're on one of the sides, but occasionally, nonetheless, they ask themselves why and don't understand that they'll be happy only if they let go of this question, for whatever reason."

A coincidence maker is a trained individual skilled in nudging events that cause a ripple effect of other effects. Chaos theory uses the classic example the butterfly effect. The bat of a single butterfly wing can be traced to impact the path and occurrence of a tornado weeks later. Given the precise set of circumstances and occurrences, a seemingly insignificant coincidence can potentially change an entire life.

This novel puts forth an unnamed organization that in different way interact with and influence the human world. Imaginary friends exist only as long as someone imagines them. Coincidence makers are recruited, trained, and given mission creating coincidences. The higher the level of the coincidence maker, the more complex the coincidences they create and the more complex the tools they have available to them. The rules are strict, and the consequences of breaking the rules are severe. The department is run by someone named only The General.

Eric, Guy, and Emily meet as one incoming class of coincidence makers. Surrounding them are the subjects of their coincidences. The book focuses primarily on Guy, but flips back and forth between the three and even the targets of their coincidences. The book also is nonlinear in time going from the present into Guy's past. Flashbacks introduce a few more characters. At first, that makes the book a bit challenging to follow. Then,  I realize that the confusion matches the theme of the book. I allow myself as a reader to be nudged back and forth between the threads of the story. I enjoy the process of thinking about what direction is going to go.

The targets of Guy's mission are a businessman and a killer for hire. That implies a thrill ride and action.  However, I realize that the book is more about the characters and the emotions; this is about the coincidence makers not the coincidences. That gives the book almost a philosophical bent and raises questions about free will versus predetermination, choice versus coincidence, and other such questions. The story anchors these questions in characters who become real and a story of love achieved and lost.

"There's always a broader picture. There's always something beyond the system you're concentrating on. Never forget that. There are no clear boundaries. Life doesn't stop at the boundaries of the table. And there are always more than six pockets you can fall into. There is always something beyond. Always, always, always."  This statement in a nutshell is the lesson of this book. For most of this book, I don't see where this book is going. I mean that in the best way possible. At times, the story is a set of distinct threads. I know that they are coming together. I have hypotheses as to how and why, and I am completely wrong. It is not until almost the end that everything does come together. It does so in a way I do not see coming. So, clearly, I concentrated on the wrong thing, and as a result had a great reading experience.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

All the Beautiful Girls

Title:  All the Beautiful Girls
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399181067 / 978-0399181061

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

Opening Sentence:  "The line of Aunt Tate's jaw was fierce and unyielding, like a hammered steel length of railroad track, but her eyels were soft and puffy from furtive crying."

Favorite Quote:  "You can't let what's happened make you a victim. People will want to see you that way; they'll say, Oh, that poor little girl. She's so pathetic. Let's just let her get away with anything and everything.' But I don't want for you to live your life trading on being a victim. I will not let that happen. You have to face life, head on."

Lily Decker is a survivor. She somehow survives a car crash that leaves her entire family dead. She is put in the care of her aunt and uncle. She survives years of her uncle's abuse and her aunt's unwillingness to see it. The "Aviator" is both the cause of and her savior from this heartache. He is the driver responsible for the accident that kills Lily's family. He is also a magnanimous presence in her childhood, providing books and dance lessons and material things. Yes, he has an actual name, but Lily rather annoyingly refers to him as the "Aviator" throughout the book

Dance become Lily's outlet and leads to her transformation from Lily to Ruby Wilde. She leaves her small town for a life of glamour and dancing as a Las Vegas show girls. Over the years, through ups and downs, Lily survives and even thrives. She finds a community of her own.

The shadow of abuse and the scars it leaves, however, are never far. These wounds consciously and unconsciously drive Lily's decisions. Through it all, the Aviator remains a presence in her life. In many ways, he is the only family she has, and he is more her family than her aunt and uncle ever were.

The base of this book is the sexual abuse of a child is a brutal and heartbreaking one. It sets up Lily as a truly sympathetic character. The image of this little girl who loses her family and then is forced into the trauma of horrific abuse lingers through out the book. Through her positive and self-destructive choices, I want things to work out for Lily.

This book is in turn joyful for Lily saves Lily. She is responsible for finding her way out not only from her abusive home but through other struggles in life. She has help along the way - the Aviator, teachers, kind bosses in Las Vegas, and the friends she finds in Las Vegas. Yet most of all, the story is of Lily finding her strength and her voice.

So, a heart wrenching premise and a strong character should make for a moving, emotional read. This book is that to an extent. It stops short. It takes me a while to puzzle out why. The book leaves a big open question about the accident that is at the foundation of the book. Lily is eight at the time. Yet, she never once displays anger towards the Aviator who is responsible. He becomes almost a mythical heroic figure in her mind. A way of coping with grief? A way of escaping the abuse at home? A child's fantasy? This question is never explored.

Although it sounds contradictory, but this book about abuse is too perfect and too neat. The "good" characters are all good. The "bad" characters seems to have few or no redeeming qualities. The life of a Las Vegas show girl is for the most part presented as a sanitized sisterhood of entertainers. Lily's transition out of serious situations seems to be relatively quick and seamless. Even the ending seems to wrap everything up with a neat bow. People, as we know, are not one dimensional. Life, as we know, is not that simple.

This is about the reaction I had to to Elizabeth Church's The Atomic Weight of Love. I enjoyed parts. I sympathized with the main character. Yet at the end, I am looking for something more.

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Other People's Houses

Title:  Other People's Houses
Author:  Abbi Waxman
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399587926 / 978-0399587924

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was amazing how many children you could fit in a minivan, if you tessellated carefully and maintained only the most basic level of safety."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes life is just what it is, and the best you can hope for is ice cream."

Imagine one neighborhood street and four families who live on that street in a world of shared friendships, shared carpools and secrets that are not shared. Imagine now a myriad of "family" issues that may occur... Stable marriage that may border on boring. A woman who epitomizes the stereotype of the frumpy minivan soccer mom. An affair. A midlife crisis. A spouse who is away for reasons unknown. An illness. A difference between spouses on the decision to have another child. One spouse's career taking precedence over another... Now throw in a set of children belonging to each set of parents and their angst. Add the mundane household tasks of carpools, groceries, laundry, and dinner.

There in a nutshell is this book. Abbi Waxman's last book The Garden of Small Beginnings was a predictable but sweet book about grief and new beginnings. The sweetness won out in the end, making it an enjoyable beach read. I pick up this book hoping the same especially with the characters from the first book do make a cameo appearance in this book.

This book is as predictable, but unfortunately, the story is not a sweet, uplifting one. The characters are not particularly likable, and their "issues" seem to fit the envisioned stereotype. This book also has a bigger cast of characters, each with their own stories. So, the book seems scattered. The emotions and the handling of the "real life" problems seems superficial. The relationships also seem not to truly embody friendship. Actually, these four families share a carpool. That really seems to be it, but somehow they end up embroiled in each other's family issues, a role that should presumably be for a friend. From personal experience as a soccer mom, friendship may begin with a carpool, but it takes a lot more to change a convenient exchange into a friendship.

My other big issue with this book is the off putting beginning. The book opens on a scene of a middle aged married woman having a dalliance with someone who is not her husband in the daytime hours in her kitchen. Eeww. This is not a love affair, at least not for her. It is a mistake. I am not saying it doesn't happen. I am just saying I don't need to "see" that.  EEwww. It's hard to recover from that image and move on with the book.

Perhaps, I could have put the image aside. However, the narrator of the book - also a middle aged mom, the carpool driver, the soccer mom - indulges in language I don't care for. The book has a lot of gratuitous cursing. It is unpleasant, gets in the way of the story, and seems out of character for someone who spends the majority of their day around children.

I liked the premise of the book that we truly do not know what happens behind someone else's closed door. The book could have led to deeper questions about the strength of a marriage and the building and destroying of trust in a relationship. Unfortunately, for me, it does not.

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

I Have Lost My Way

Title:  I Have Lost My Way
Author:  Gayle Forman
Publication Information:  Viking Books for Young Readers. 2018. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0425290778 / 978-0425290774

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

Opening Sentence:  "I have lost my way."

Favorite Quote:  "To be the holder of other people's loss is to be the keeper of their love. To share your loss with people is another way of giving your love."

Three young people. One day. A series of coincidences. Their lives will never be the same. Freya is a singer who is on the brink of stardom but has lost her voice. Harun's life is taking him in a direction that may take him far from his family. Nathaniel is new to town and lost in more ways than one.

Below the surface, each one carries with them their secrets and their griefs. A coincidence introduces them to each other. As with Leave Me, at this point, I have to suspend my disbelief as a reader. To follow this story of friendship, I have to believe that the instant bond between these three young people occurs.

Although the circumstances of each are completely different, they see reflected their own sadness and loneliness in each other.

Freya is a solo artist signed by a big name manager in the industry. She is in the process of recording her debut album. In the past lies the fact that she was part of duo with her sister, and they achieved some success on their own. What lies between those two facts is the sadness of Freya's life.

Harun is part of a large and loving family. Part of who he is, however, may never be accepted by his family; love may have its boundaries. Therein in lies Harun's sadness. Does he deny who he is or does he risk his family's reaction?

Nathaniel has only just arrived in New York; he is seeking a new beginning. In his past are the place, the people and the secrets he thinks he left behind. Those secrets hold the key to his loneliness.

As they learn about each other in this day, the three discover in each the courage to face their own dilemmas.

What I appreciate most about this book is the diversity of the characters. It is purposeful but not forced. The "diverse" point is not the forefront of these characters; it is naturally and simply a part of who they are. The diversity of the characters is a reflection of New York City and this nation itself. That is who we are.

The plot is based on coincidences, but the emotions are real. It is the feelings of being lost and lonely and alone that draws these three very different people together. It is their common bond even though their lives couldn't be more different. That is what makes this book work for this is a feeling many people can relate to not matter how different they may be from these characters. Most people at some point in their lives have felt lost and alone. Someone or something - a book, a song, a movie, anything - that reflects that emotion and says that you are not alone can make a huge difference in a life.

The news these days brings what seems like daily messages of a person felt so alone and desperate as to end their life. In such a time, the message that no matter what the trouble, you are not alone is such an important one. That is the question to ask. If the stars had not aligned and these young people had not met, how different would their story be? How would their stories end?

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

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Italian Teacher

Title:  The Italian Teacher
Author:  Tom Rachman
Publication Information:  Publisher. Date. pages.
ISBN:  073522269X / 978-0735222694

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

Opening Sentence:  "Seated in a copper bathtub, Bear Bavinsky dunks his head under steaming water and shakes out his beard, flinging droplets across the art studio"

Favorite Quote:  "What is have never been what ought ... You pose an is/ought question. When I was younger, I dabbled in 'oughts.' I have retired to 'is.'"

The Italian teacher, Charles "Pinch" Bavinsky, is an artist. Or at one time, he was an artist. Or at the very least, at one time, he wanted to be an artist. He is at one time also an academic and an author. He ends up as a teacher.

Pinch is the child of two artists. His father "Bear" Bavinskly is a painter and a big personality. He is also world famous and completely self-involved. Pinch's mother Natalie is a sculptor, who fades under Bear's shadow. Pinch's life is a testament to trying to gain his father's approval and recognition.

His half-sister Birdie takes a different approach. She advises Pinch to not look for that personal connection with his father. "When you see what he accomplished ... maybe he was right how he acted. Would it be better if he’d shown up for softball games ... without doing what he knew, knew, would be so great? It’s bigger than us. Bigger than us, Charlie…” In real life, is there a balance possible? I would like to think so. In Bear's narcissistic life, there is not. In Birdie's life, it is acceptable for there  not to be balance. In Pinch's life, there is a hope that it may come one day.

The book follows the trajectory of Pinch's life in four sections - childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. Childhood is spend in artistic endeavors waiting for Bear's visits for Bear is not a permanent fixture in his life. He comes and goes and has an entire life separate from Pinch and his mother; he has in fact fathered more than ten children with several different women!

Pinch lights up with his father's attention, and tries to hold on to his father. That becomes the theme of his life. He takes up painting only to give it up because of his father. He tries to find a place in Bear's other life only to see that it does not exist. He tries to write a biography of his father only to give it up because of his father. So it continues until almost the end of the book. The ending, when it comes, is surprising and, in retrospect, completely fitting.

This book reminds me in some ways of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Both books begin with this little boy being batted around by circumstances completely out of his control. As a reader, he elicits that sympathy and that feeling that he needs to be protected. Both books follow the trajectory of the boy's life, centering sections around different phases of life. Both characters spend their lives seeking something out of reach. In Pinch's case, it is his father's approval and attention; it is an existence in his father's life.

This book is sad, but not quite as sad as The Goldfinch. Both good and bad things happen to Pinch in his life. He makes both good and bad choices. He forms some relationships that last. Through all the good and the bad choices, I care about Pinch and what happens to him.

That is the skill of Tom Rachman's writing. The characters feel so real. I find myself searching for "Bear Bavinsky" to see if he may have existed or if he may have been based on a historical aritst. The book is pure fiction, but it feels as if it is a real story about real people.

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

Winter Sisters

Title:  Winter Sisters
Author:  Robin Oliveira
Publication Information:  Viking. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  039956425X / 978-0399564253

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Two days before Emma and Claire O'Donnell disappeared, a light snow fell from the dawn sky above Albany, New York, almost as a warning mist."

Favorite Quote:  "Every inch toward courage was a decision. Even ten feet on her own would be a triumph. The line between coercion and choice for her was the line between darkness and light."

It takes me a while to think about the central theme of this book; it reveals itself gradually. The story is of a family and a city. It is about the devastation of a storm and about the lumber industry. It is about the pursuit, destruction, and rediscovery of a dream. It is about marriages and about parents and children. It is about a disappearance and its aftermath. It is about abuse and its aftermath. It is about corruption. It is about a quest for justice. It is about love. It takes a while, but then, I have a definite "a-ha" moment. What draws the entire book together is the women - young and old - and their ability or inability to survive and thrive in a male-dominated world.

The central emotionally intense story is the story of two young girls - the winter sisters - who disappear during a snowstorm in Albany, New York in 1879. The author's note at the end of the book includes an appalling fact. "In 1879, the age of consent in New York sate was ten years old. The NY Statute regarding rape read, in part: 'Every person who shall be convicted of rape either, 1. By carnally and unlawfully knowing any female child under the age of ten years; or, 2. By forcibly ravishing any woman of the age of ten years or upwards...'" Ten years old. Ten years old! The fictional story elaborates that in a victim above the age of ten, "survival is considered an indication of acquiescence." In other words, if the girl fights to the death, rape may be proved. If the girl survives, then she did not fight hard enough and is deemed to have given consent. At the age of ten!

Of the sisters who go missing, Emma is above the age of ten, and Claire is not. I leave you to imagine what comes next. Ten years old. What happens to them has repercussions through the town, bringing to light the darker and evil side of some of its most illustrious residents. The identification of those involved is not really difficult with the small cast of characters in this book. So, I would not term it a mystery, which works because the mystery is not the focus of this book. The fact of the girl's age and the law is. Ten years old.

This book is broader than Emma and Claire's story; this book is about women of different ages and professions all made to suffer by a society in which women do not have the same position or rights as a man. Mary Sutter is a qualified physician but is not given the same respect for her skills as her husband and fellow physician William is. Elizabeth is a gifted violin player whose confidence and dream is shattered by a man telling her she is not good enough. Viola is a woman caught in an abusive marriage with the thought of having no other alternatives. Darlene is a prostitute. The men are more than willing to visit the brothels, but the women there are treated as objects who should in no way come into contact with the rest of society.

Mind you, the book is not unbalanced in the male characters. Obviously, there are the monsters who prey on children and hide behind a cloak of respectability. There are the men who take advantage of their position to bully and abuse those below them. Equally though, the book presents strong men able to stand up for what they believe and stand up for what is right. They embody the image of what relationship ought to be. "Theirs was a tenacious kind of love, as solid and true as granite. Neither of them could think of a time in their life together when either had let the other down."

The plot of the book centers around the sisters and their disappearance, but well developed characters create the bigger themes of rights and equality in a story that draws me in and keeps me reading until the very last page.

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